OKLAHOMA CITY -- For almost 13 years, Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue has fought to make the federal government pay for the death of his brother in a federal prison in Oklahoma.
And the government fought back, twice appealing a $1.1 million judgment won by the lawyer and other family members of Kenneth Trentadue, who died behind bars in 1995.
On Monday, the Trentadues won again. For the third time, U.S. District Judge Tim Leonard in Oklahoma City ordered damages be paid to Kenneth Trentadue's survivors for their emotional distress caused by the way prison officials handled the case.
The judge did drop the overall amount to $900,000, but despite the reduction, Jesse Trentadue called the decision a victory. He added that he expects the government will refuse to pay the damages and said he has no way to force a payment.
Officials with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., which handled the appeal, could not be reached late Monday for immediate comment.
Kenneth Trentadue, who had served time for bank robbery, was being held in a federal prison in Oklahoma City on an alleged parole violation when he was found hanged in his cell on Aug. 21, 1995. Prison officials and several federal and local investigations concluded that he committed suicide.
His relatives contend that Kenneth Trentadue died at the hands of guards who mistook him for a suspected accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing; the family filed a wrongful death suit. Leonard ruled in 2001 that the inmate killed himself but awarded family members $1.1 million for their emotional distress.
The case went to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver two times and twice was sent back to Leonard to re-evaluate his findings that the Trentadues' mental anguish was severe under Oklahoma law.
In his latest ruling, Leonard let stand the amounts of $250,000 to Kenneth Trentadue's widow, $50,000 to his late father and $200,000 to Jesse Trentadue. He reduced by a total of $200,000 the awards to Trentadue's sister, another brother and his now-deceased mother.
The judge said the amounts are reasonable based on the "extreme and outrageous actions" of federal authorities in the aftermath of Trentadue's death. That conduct included failing to warn family members that an autopsy had been performed, something they discovered when they saw incisions from the procedure on his body.
In addition to the wrongful death suit, Jesse Trentadue filed three lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City seeking documents from the FBI about the Oklahoma City bombing and the investigation into his brother's death. He is continuing his effort to disprove the official finding of suicide.