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Arizona Prisoner Receives $175,000 after Guards Read His Legal Mail, Shared it with FBI and Prosecutors

by Matt Clarke

On May 7, 2019, Maricopa County, Arizona agreed to pay a prisoner $175,000 to settle claims related to jail guards reading his legal mail, sharing it with the Attorney General and FBI, and failing to deliver his letters to his attorney.

Thomas Orville Bastian, who represented himself in the settlement negotiations while receiving advice and assistance from attorney Holly Gieszl, had not yet filed a lawsuit. A few weeks later, prosecutors dropped pending terrorism charges against him.

Bastian, 41, was a state prisoner serving a life sentence for murder when he was charged with five felony counts – including terrorism, promoting prison contraband, possessing a prohibited weapon and providing advice to a criminal syndicate – based on allegations that he plotted with his wife to smuggle plans for making an explosive device into ASPC-Lewis in Buckeye. His wife was sentenced to nine years for her role in the scheme.

When Bastian was incarcerated at Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail awaiting trial on the terrorism-related charges, three guards opened and read his legal mail and one shared the contents with an FBI agent.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Danielle Viola ruled in March 2019 that the guards “opened, copied, and read” Bastian’s legal mail outside his presence, which violated his First and Sixth Amendment rights, and that the guards lied under oath about their actions. She specifically found that jail intelligence supervisor Sgt. Tara Spaulding falsely claimed during a four-day hearing that Bastian’s legal mail was only opened once, by accident, and her unit did not maintain a binder of his letters. Guard Christopher Williamson also falsely testified that the jail did not keep a binder of Bastian’s correspondence.

Guard Brad Landry contradicted Spaulding and Williamson by revealing the existence of the folder to the court, but then lied by claiming to have never read Bastian’s letters. The lie came out when it was revealed that Landry had quoted “almost verbatim” from one of Bastian’s legal letters when relaying its contents to an FBI agent.

In a scathing order, Judge Viola found that the guards engaged in “outrageous” and “appalling” conduct by opening at least 17 pieces of Bastian’s legal mail outside his presence, sharing the contents with the Attorney General’s office and the FBI, and failing to deliver six letters he wrote to his legal team. Two months later, the county offered a $175,000 pre-litigation settlement and prosecutors dismissed the pending terrorism-related charges against Bastian.

“Our office recently became aware of information that we believe makes a reasonable likelihood of conviction for Mr. Bastian on terrorism charges unlikely,” said Rayan Anderson, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. “More importantly, we felt it was necessary to dismiss the case given our ethical obligations.”

“A lot of people hoped that [Maricopa County Sheriff Paul] Penzone was going to bring about a lot of needed changes – and he has – but the sheriff is not being well-served by the people under him,” attorney Gieszl said. “He needs to be sure the men and women below him have his back on constitutional issues.”  

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Sources: phoenixnewtimes.com, azcentral.com