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Hatch launches committee probe into inmate's death

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is launching a Senate Judiciary Committee probe into whether Justice Department officials may have committed a murder and then covered it up.

The case involves the Aug. 21, 1995, death of Kenneth Michael Trentadue, a southern California man whose brother, Jesse, is a Salt Lake City lawyer.He died in a cell at a transfer center in Oklahoma operated by the U.S. Prisons Bureau, an arm of the Justice Department. Guards say he hanged himself, but his brother and other family members say strong evidence suggests he was beaten to death.

On Thursday, after a long probe, the Justice Department said it will file no charges in the case. So Hatch said on Friday that his Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct its own investigation now.

"I have been concerned for some time now that there may have been wrongdoing in connection with the death of Kenneth Trentadue," Hatch said.

For example, while guards say he hanged himself, Trentadue's body was covered with bruises that his family, which has the photos of the body, says must have come from a beating, not a hanging.

Also, they say sworn statements of inmates who cleaned his cell said it was blood-soaked and had bloody fingerprints tracking up a wall toward an alarm button - but fell just short of reaching it.

Relatives also said Trentadue was an unlikely suicide candidate because he had been taken to the Oklahoma center for not checking in with his parole officer and didn't expect more than a few more months in jail. Also, he was recently married and had a new son.

They also said prison authorities seemed eager to cremate his body, which the family declined. And prison officials were slow to ship his body to southern California, where his wife and son lived. The bruises were discovered when the body arrived.

Under pressure, the Justice Department later opened a criminal investigation into the death - but few details were released because it was conducted through the secretive federal grand jury process.

Still, Hatch and other members of Congress who represent other relatives of Trentadue had pushed for updates on the investigation - and Hatch asked Attorney General Janet Reno about it several times in her appearances before his committee.

Hatch said he didn't want to open his own probe and interfere with a criminal investigation - but that is no longer a problem since the Justice Department investigation is closed.