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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Prosecutors Can Hold Back Prison Murder Video

DENVER (CN) - A legal journal cannot access grisly video and autopsy photographs of a Colorado inmate murdered by his cellmates because the privacy rights of the victim's family trumps public interest, the 10th Circuit ruled.

William and Rudy Sablan, cousins and prisoners at a Florence, Colo., penitentiary, were convicted of killing their cellmate, Joey Jesus Estrella, in 1999 while reportedly drunk on homemade wine. The Sablans, who are currently serving life sentences, strangled Estrella with a headphone cord, slashed Estrella's neck with a prison-issue disposable razor and taunted prison guards with Estrella's entrails, according to media reports.

At the trial, prosecutors showed jurors "gruesome" autopsy photographs and video that the Bureau of Prisons filmed of the cell interior after the murder, including Estrella's mutilated corpse.

When the U.S. Attorney's Office took custody of the evidence, Prison Legal News, a nonprofit monthly journal that covers prisoners' rights issues, requested the videotapes and autopsy photographs under the Freedom of Information Act. The Vermont-based publication sued after the Executive Office for United States Attorneys denied their request in full.

A federal judge ordered the office to turn over audio from the first part of the video footage, as well as video of the second portion.

The U.S. attorneys complied with the order and released audio for the second portion as well, which depicts prison officials extracting the Sablans from the cell and does not contain any images of Estrella's body.

The first portion of the video, which was withheld, shows what the cell looked like before Estrella's mutilated body had been removed. The released accompanying audio contains both the Sablans' voices and prison officials' voices, but the U.S. attorneys redacted four statements in which the Sablans "describ[e] the heinous acts" they committed to Estrella's body, according to the ruling.

Prison Legal News argued on appeal that Estrella and his family do not have expectation of privacy since Estrella was a prisoner.

It contended that the use of the images at the trials, combined with his family's failure to object to the introduction of the evidence in open court, effectively constituted a waiver of privacy interests.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several media outlets, including "60 Minutes" and the Associated Press, filed an amici curiae brief on the news journal's behalf.

On Jan. 11, the 10th Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling, noting that the material was protected by an FOIA exemption for "family members' right to personal privacy with respect to their close relative's death-scene images."

Writing for the 10th Circuit, Judge Michael Murphy said the withheld materials, involving "grotesque and degrading depiction of corpse mutilation," are unquestionably death-scene images.

"Any diminishment of Estrella's expectation of privacy as a result of his status as a prisoner does not bear on his family's privacy interest in not having gruesome images of his body publicly disseminated," the ruling states. "Estrella's status as a prisoner only has the potential to affect his own, and not his family's, privacy interests."

Citing a 1995 decision from the D.C. Circuit, the three-judge panel concluded, "family members have a right to personal privacy 'to secure their own refuge from a sensation-seeking culture for their own peace of mind and tranquility, not for the sake of the deceased.'"

The journal argued that the withheld media would shed light on the Bureau of Prisons' missteps in protecting prisoners from violence and its inability to prevent prisoners from access to alcohol and other prohibited substances.

Murphy rejected the argument, noting that the video does not capture prison officials' conduct or anything before the murder occurred, such as drinking.

He added that the journal's arguments of public interest "ring hollow," since media outlets that covered the trial have also already brought any issues of interest into the public domain.

Despite public knowledge of them, the court contined that the images are not already public available and have never been reproduced for public consumption beyond the mens' trials.

"Although descriptive information about what the images contain may now be widely available, there is a distinct privacy interest in the images themselves," the ruling states.

The court dismissed Prison Legal News' appeal for the four redacted audio statements and affirmed the district court's judgment in all other respects.

"For the same reasons that Estrella's family has an interest in not being subjected to the public display of gruesome images of their deceased relative, they also have a privacy interest in the voices of the perpetrators themselves describing the heinous acts in progress," Murphy wrote. "Like the images, these audio recordings add little or nothing to the large amount of public knowledge about the crimes and the government's response to them."

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