Given the recent ruling in the case, this prior column on the scandal and saga of Kenneth Trentadue may be of interest.
Crooked arm of the law
On Aug. 21, 1995, Kenneth Trentadue was found hanging from a bed sheet in his prison cell in Oklahoma. Federal prison officials and investigators immediately declared his death a suicide and sought to cremate his remains. His family, however, was suspicious and stopped the cremation for a privately funded autopsy. What they found may be a case of murder followed by an extraordinary cover-up by federal officials.
This month, the Senate is considering calling a hearing into the case — a hearing that should address a growing number of recent scandals involving perjury and obstruction of justice by federal officials.
From the outset, Trentadue’s suicide seemed unbelievable to his family. Trentadue, a convicted bank robber, was arrested two days before on a simple parole violation. The family’s autopsy disclosed that Trentadue had bruises and blood on his face and that his throat had been slit. The local coroner strongly questioned the finding of suicide by federal prison officials.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and others called for hearings in 1998. However, the Justice Department launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to scuttle the hearings. In memorandums detailing meetings with senators released last week, it now appears that federal officials may have misrepresented the evidence in the case to avoid a congressional investigation.
For example, officials assured the senators that all of the blood in the cell was Trentadue’s when actually they had found blood from a second individual. Under pressure from Congress, an internal investigation was conducted and concluded that federal officials lied about the evidence. Hatch sent a letter to then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno stating that “it looks as though somebody in the Bureau of Prisons … murdered the man.” A federal district judge was equally scathing in a recent decision awarding $1.1 million to the Trentadue family, finding among other things that FBI officials may have committed perjury in his court.
The Trentadue case is particularly disturbing because it follows a growing number of cases of alleged perjury and obstruction of justice by federal officials. For example, new allegations were raised recently concerning the Timothy McVeigh case. A critical letter was discovered that was never turned over to the defense or the court — the contents of which would have probably halted McVeigh’s execution. The letter from an FBI whistle-blower strongly supported the defense contention that evidence offered by the FBI was unreliable.
The letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was sent 11 days before McVeigh’s execution but never given to the court, as required by law. Marked as “urgent,” the letter indicated that Stephen Burmeister, now the FBI’s chief of scientific analysis, may have given “false, misleading, and potentially fabricated” evidence to the court. Specifically, critical ammonium nitrate crystals reportedly found on a piece of McVeigh’s truck may have been from cleaning crews at the FBI lab and not explosives. Notably, the judge in the case, Richard Matsch, had already delayed the execution after it was disclosed that the Justice Department had failed to hand over thousands of pages of evidence in the case.
Moreover, Burmeister had testified that his lab was the very model of professionalism in taking precautions against contamination — an assertion later found to be untrue in the so-called FBI lab scandal. In all of these matters, the Justice Department has insisted that these were merely mishandling or administrative problems. These cases, however, suggest something far more serious, including criminal acts of perjury and obstruction. Currently, dozens of federal convictions are being reevaluated after the disclosure of false testimony by federal experts in DNA cases.
Likewise, it was recently disclosed that the Justice Department and FBI officials allowed an innocent man to be sentenced to death and remain incarcerated for 30 years for a murder that they knew was ordered by one of their own informants. In the ongoing scandal involving Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, one former FBI agent has already been sent to jail for perjury and obstruction of justice. In the Ruby Ridge and Wen Ho Lee scandals, senior FBI agents admitted to giving false testimony. Prosecutions for such criminal acts have been limited, and many of these violations came to light largely because they involved high-profile cases.
It is widely believed that the occurrence of false testimony and obstructions by federal officials is much higher. Though the Justice Department does not hesitate to prosecute people like Martha Stewart and others for any allegedly false statement given to federal investigators, they are far more circumspect in dealing with their own ranks. There is a culture of toleration, if not admiration, for agents who “work with prosecutors” to craft testimony to guarantee convictions. What is often dismissed as an excess of enthusiasm within Justice is regularly charged as a crime for citizens.
Congress needs to hold hearings, but only if it is prepared to force real changes at the Justice Department and the FBI. We need real reform and individual accountability so that the public can better distinguish between our law enforcement officials and the subjects of their work.
Jonathan Turley is a professor at George Washington Law School and has testified in Congress on perjury and misconduct by federal investigators.
LA Times June 12, 2003