How a Former Prisoner Took Down a Big Shot from the Private Prison Industry (and Cheney Pal)
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In a February 26, 2008 letter to the Judiciary Committee, CCA attorney James F. Sanders tried to jump to Puryear's defense. Presumably with a straight face, Sanders wrote, "there is no credible evidence to support Dr. Levy's homicide conclusion, other than the head injury and the death itself." This led one journalist who wrote about Estelle's case to observe, "Ah, yes, just those bothersome little details. The head injury and the death itself."
Meanwhile, Joseph F. Welborn III, one of the lawyers who defended CCA in Estelle Richardson's wrongful death suit, and attorney David Randolph Smith, who represented Estelle's children, filed a joint motion to unseal the settlement hearing transcript in that case. The unsealed transcript was then provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Puryear's answers to questions concerning Estelle's death.
Although Smith and Welborn had advised the court that "The transcript does not contain terms of the minor settlement and will not violate the order of the Court that the settlement remain confidential," the unsealed transcript in fact contained sufficient details to determine that CCA had paid approximately $2 million to settle the lawsuit filed on behalf of Estelle's children. [See: PLN, May 2008, p.28]. The transcript is posted on PLN's website.
After being contacted by Friedmann, Estelle Richardson's sister-by-adoption sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee describing the circumstances of Estelle's death. She told the Committee that CCA had "never apologized" to Estelle's family or children. Apparently Puryear, who personally negotiated the settlement, felt $2 million was sufficient compensation and no apology was necessary.
Silja J.A. Talvi, a PLN board member and senior editor at In These Times, a monthly news magazine,had been following the Estelle Richardson case for years. On May 5, 2008 she wrote a scathing two-part article on Puryear's judicial nomination in the context of Estelle's death, which was published as an exclusive on AlterNet.
Contrasting Puryear's rich and privileged life with that of Estelle Richardson, a "low-income, African American mother of two," Talvi noted that it would have been "unlikely that the two would have ever met under even the most random of circumstances."
And yet their fates were strangely intertwined -- Estelle, who died at a CCA jail alone in a segregation cell, and Gus Puryear, who years later had to answer uncomfortable and difficult questions about her death. Talvi was later interviewed by Amy Goodman on the news program Democracy Now!, where she discussed her reporting on the Puryear nomination.
Following the publication of Talvi's article on AlterNet, an anonymous donor offered a $35,000 cash reward for information in the Estelle Richardson case. The reward consisted of $10,000 for the recovery or proof of existence of the elusive videotape of Estelle's cell extraction the day before she died, and $25,000 for information leading to the prosecution and conviction of those responsible for her death.
"The substantial reward offered in Estelle Richardson's unsolved homicide demonstrates that the lives of prisoners are not worthless," said Friedmann. "While for the past four years CCA officials have been unable to explain who was responsible for Ms. Richardson's murder, this reward will hopefully shed some light on her tragic death."
The Puryear opposition campaign devoted a separate website to Estelle's case and the $35,000 reward ( www.whokilledestelle.org), and a Nashville civil rights group, Power to the People, took on Estelle's death as a social justice issue and held a protest rally in Sept. 2008.
Ultimately, Estelle Richardson did what the other, more mundane issues raised by the opposition campaign could not. Her unsolved homicide put a human face on the prisoners held in CCA's for-profit facilities; it also revealed Puryear to be little more than a corporate hack whose primary goal was protecting CCA's interests, regardless of who died in the company's lockups or under what circumstances.