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Family of BOP Prisoner Awarded $1.1 Million in Wrongful Death Suit

A federal judge in Oklahoma City ruled in May 2001 that the government was negligent in the death of federal prisoner Kenneth Michael Trentadue and ordered the family to be paid $1.1 million for emotional distress. However, U.S. District Judge Tim Leonard rejected arguments that Trentadue was murdered and the government covered it up.

Five months earlier, on December 15, 2000, a federal jury impaneled in the same court found that Trentadue's civil rights had been violated in prison, but also rejected claims that he was murdered. The eight jurors awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages to Trentadue's family, finding that a former prison guard, Lt. Stuart A. Lee, was deliberately indifferent to the prisoner's serious medical needs when Trentadue was found hanging in his cell. The jury did not find that Lee violated Trentadue's civil rights by using excessive force against him or by failing to protect him from an assault.

The 44-year-old former San Diego resident was found hanging in his cell at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City on August 21, 1995. PLN reported extensively on Trentadue's death at the time it happened. Federal and state law enforcement investigations concluded he committed suicide, but Trentadue's family accused prison guards of murdering him. Photographs of the body, covered in blood, caused suspicion that the convicted bank robber was the victim of a beating. Questions lingered when State Medical Examiner Fred Jordan initially could not determine how Trentadue died. But in 1998, Jordan ruled the cause of death was suicide after an Oklahoma City police investigation concluded Trentadue's injuries were the result of a botched attempt to hang himself on the first try. Trentadue had recently been arrested on a parole violation complaint. Prison officials cleaned Trentadue's cell before the FBI, Oklahoma City police or the medical examiner's office could examine it.

The allegations of medical indifference by Lee were based on how he responded when Trentadue was found hanging. Former guard Eric Ellis, who first discovered Trentadue's body, testified that Lee gave a radio order not to enter the cell and cut the prisoner down, although Lee denied giving that order. Ellis testified that Lee first wanted the scene videotaped and it was probably 10 to 12 minutes before Trentadue was cut down. Evidence also showed that the prison's physician's assistant checked Trentadue's vital signs while the prisoner was still hanging and made no effort to revive him.

The U.S. Justice Department criticized prison officials for not rushing to cut Trentadue down and attempting to resuscitate him. Lee argued there was nothing that could be done for Trentadue because it was apparent he was dead. Attorney Scott Adams argued the lack of prompt medical attention means no one will ever know whether Trentadue could have been revived.

Prison officials said Trentadue hanged himself with a braided bed sheet tied to a vent grate. Medical Examiner Jordan testified that some of the prisoner's injuries were more consistent with strangulation than hanging, but still thinks Trentadue killed himself. Jordan said Trentadue had a bone fracture above his voice box that is more commonly found in strangulation. He initially listed the manner of death as unknown and questioned whether Trentadue was murdered. He ruled it a suicide in 1998.

Asked by attorney Adams why it took so long to conclude it was a suicide, Jordan said that his investigation had been thwarted initially when his investigator was denied access to Trentadue's cell and was only allowed to view it through a window. The medical examiner's office wasn't allowed into the cell until months later after it had been cleaned, he said.

Oklahoma City police conducted a fivemonth investigation and concluded Trentadue's injuries were the result of a botched attempt to hang himself on the first try. Jordan said he changed the manner of death to suicide after police reconstructed the death scene and provided an explanation for Trentadue's injuries. Jordan did say, however, that a head wound on Trentadue "will always be of some concern to me." Bruises under Trentadue's arms could suggest he was restrained but "other explanations" are possible, he said.

A U.S. Justice Department report also stated most of the Trentadue videotape did not turn out because of operator error. Trentadue's family alleges a cover-up by prison officials and claims the videotape was erased. Attorneys for the family also presented evidence that, according to a jail log, another prisoner, Alden Gillis Baker was assigned on August 14, 1995, to the same cell where Trentadue was found. Lawyers for the Trentadue family had tracked down Baker who was quoted as saying he could hear Trentadue pleading with guards to stop beating him. In a bizarre twist to the case, Baker, 47, was found hanging in his cell from a homemade rope at a federal prison in Lompoc, California on August 3, 2000. The Santa Barbara coroner's office ruled Baker's death a suicide.

"I was shocked, stunned," attorney Adams said. "It's pretty incredible because he's the only witness who really came forward and said he saw the guards go in there and murder Kenneth." Lawyers had filed a motion with the court in December 1999 asking that Baker be placed in a witness security program and that a protective order be issued to protect Baker after he earlier said he feared for his life. The motion was still pending at the time of Baker's death.

A week after Judge Leonard's May 2001 ruling in the case, Trentadue's family asked Utah Senator Orrin Hatch to conduct hearings on the government's investigation into the death. At the time of this writing, no statement was forthcoming from Hatch's office.

Source: The Dallas Morning News.

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