A federal judge in Oklahoma has ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to pay the family of a deceased federal inmate close to a million dollars in damages.
The judge determined that agents intentionally inflicted emotional distress when they shipped the bruised and bloody body of Kenneth Michael Trentadue to the family while saying little about how he died.
For Salt Lake attorney Jesse Trentadue, the ruling issued last week is a victory in his now 13-year legal battle with the federal government to prove that, in a case of mistaken identity, his brother was interrogated and murdered by FBI agents investigating the Oklahoma City bombing.
"I think it's a victory," Trentadue told the Deseret Morning News. "Although I don't plan to see a dime of it."
In what has been a long and nasty legal war, government officials twice tried to have Trentadue indicted on obstruction of justice charges. He believes such attempts were made to end his family's civil suit. The charges never went anywhere and on one occasion, the federal grand jury refused to indict due to a lack of evidence on the government's part.
Trentadue said Justice Department attorneys in Washington, D.C., have flat out told him no matter how many court judgments he gets, they don't plan on paying out. "They told us that it would be a cold day in hell before they pay anything."
When asked to respond, a Justice official said his office has not decided what step to take. "We are still reviewing the court's order and we've made no decision as to what our next step will be," said Charles Miller, spokesman for the department's civil division.
As for Trentadue's statement about being told he won't be paid: "I don't think we want to comment on that," Miller said.
Trentadue still clearly remembers getting a call from his mother saying his brother had died while in federal custody. Kenneth Trentadue, a paroled bank robber, was picked up in California on a parole violation and transported to Oklahoma City. Investigators apparently believed he matched the description of someone they were looking for who was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing plot, according to Jesse Trentadue and sworn affidavits from inmates.
At the time, Federal Bureau of Prisons officials told the Trentadues that Kenneth had committed suicide and was found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell. It wasn't until later that family members found out prison officials tried to have the body cremated, only to have a state coroner in Oklahoma refuse without family consent, according to court documents.
When Kenneth Trentadue's body arrived at a funeral home in California, family members were stunned to find the body bloody and covered in bruises. To them, this did not appear to be a simple suicide. It looked as if Kenneth Trentadue had been beaten severely. The government had also conducted an autopsy on the body without telling family members.
In August 1997, the family filed a wrongful death suit in federal court in Oklahoma. Trentadue also pursued legal action to obtain documents to support his claims of torture.
In the suit, the family brought forward allegations that federal agents fabricated evidence of Kenneth's death, threatened witnesses, bribed witnesses, intimidated family members and balked at giving any information about the cause of death.
During a bench trial in 2001, a federal judge found the conspiracy allegations could not be proven but ruled federal agents did intentionally inflict emotional distress by failing to tell the family about the condition of the body.
The government appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. After bouncing back twice on appeal, the district judge last week issued another opinion, ordering the government to pay about $1 million in damages to the Trentadue family.
Trentadue said there is no way he can compel the government to pay up, despite countless hours spent over 13 years to fight the government in court. The reason is the law precludes citizens from filing liens or writs of execution against government entities. The law is devised to prevent citizens from bleeding governments of funds.
Meanwhile, Trentadue continues to fight the government on several Freedom of Information cases: one to access a government investigation into his brother's death and a second suit to find out the government's basis for trying to indict Trentadue twice. So far, the government has fought handing over the documents, despite several district and appellate court rulings ordering the information's release.
In a recent case, the government handed over the investigation report to Trentadue completely blacked out. Judges with the 10th Circuit Court were not amused. In oral arguments held last year, appellate judges criticized the government for even redacting information that was clearly public record and said there was evidence that agents were responsible for "serious acts of misconduct."
The government stalled handing over the documents last fall, saying it planned to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court only to later abandon that effort. Now, the federal court has ordered the government to turn over the documents by April 10.
Trentadue said the effort to hide information from him comes from the top ranks of the Justice Department, who not only want to cover up information about his brother's death but possible prior knowledge that the FBI may have had about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 adults and children.