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Partial Summary Judgment Granted To PLN in FOIA Case against EOUSA

On September 16, 2009, U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger granted in part and denied in part a motion for summary judgment by Prison Legal News (PLN) in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case wherein PLN sought the disclosure of a gruesome video and autopsy photos related to the death of a federal prisoner.

On October 10, 1999, Joey Estrella was brutally murdered by his two drunken cellmates, William and Rudy Sablan, while incarcerated in the segregation unit at the United States Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.

In the immediate aftermath of Estrella’s death, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) videotaped William Sablan mutilating and handling Estrella’s body and internal organs, and drinking Estrella’s blood. The video also shows Estrella’s numerous injuries, and the BOP’s removal of the Sablans from the cell, along with their initial physical exams, and their placement in four-point restraints in different cells.

The United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the District of Colorado used the video and autopsy photos in prosecuting the Sablans and unsuccessfully seeking the death penalty. Following the Sablans’ convictions, the video and autopsy photos were returned to the USAO where they remain.

On March 12, 2007, PLN submitted a FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) for a copy of the video and autopsy photos. The EOUSA denied the request, and following the denial of its administrative appeal, PLN filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking an order compelling disclosure of the records.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Krieger decided that PLN was not entitled to disclosure of the autopsy photos, and that FOIA permitted only limited disclosure of the video by the BOP.

In rejecting PLN’s request for the autopsy photos, the court concluded that the photos were protected from disclosure by Exemption 6 and Exemption 7(c) of the FOIA, both of which preclude the production of records if doing so “would” or “could reasonably be expected” to constitute an invasion of privacy.

“Given the graphic nature of the photographs,” the court wrote, “public dissemination of these images could impede the [Estrella] family’s ability to mourn Mr. Estrella’s death in private and achieve emotional closure.”

PLN had argued that the photos would shed light on the USAO’s decision to seek the death penalty in prosecuting the Sablans, but since the jury declined to impose the death penalty, this justification for the photos did not outweigh the Estrella family’s privacy interests, the court concluded.

Turning to the video recorded by the BOP, the court similarly decided that much of it was protected from disclosure. The court segregated the video into two parts, holding that the portions featuring Estrella’s body were not subject to dis-closure for privacy reasons. The only part of the video the court held was releasable involved the BOP’s interactions with the Sablans, and the audio of BOP staff talking.

PLN tried to overcome the EOUSA’s use of Exemption 6 and 7 by invoking the so-called “public domain” doctrine, which holds that once a record becomes a permanent part of the public domain, such as when the government introduced the video and autopsy photos at trial, no FOIA exemption may be asserted. The court concluded, however, that the doctrine could not be used to vitiate the significant privacy interests at stake in the case. Thus trials are “public” only to those who can physically attend them.

The parties’ motions for summary judgment were accordingly granted in part and denied in part. PLN has since appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit. PLN is ably represented by Gail Johnson, Dan Manville and Ari Krichiver. See: Prison Legal News v. Executive Office for United States Attorneys, USDC, D CO, Case No. 08-CV-01055-MSK-KLM.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Executive Office for United States Attorneys

Please see the brief bank for the court's opinion.