Caged Hit

Steve Benitez was stabbed through the heart in his cell after an error by the Arizona Department of Corrections kept him out of protective custody. Now the state might have to cut a check to his family to pay for that mistake.

Attorneys for the estate of Benitez, a gang member turned informant, filed a claim for $11 million against DOC two weeks ago--the first step in filing a lawsuit.

The claim, filed by attorneys Larry Hammond and Debbie Hill, accuses DOC of ignoring threats to Benitez's life by the New Mexican Mafia, the prison gang he betrayed by turning informer.

"There is little question about DOC's liability," Hammond wrote in the claim. "It is in everyone's interest--particularly DOC--to settle this case as quickly as possible."

The claim asks for $1 million in monetary damages and $10 million in punitive damages as an amount "minimally necessary to express the sense of outrage for Steve Benitez's death and to . . . prevent future similar conduct by DOC."

Benitez's assistance was credited with averting a prison riot. It also earned him a price on his head by the gang.

After Benitez violated his probation twice, he was sent back to DOC in December. By some mix-up, he was sent to Santa Rita, a unit near Tucson known to have a heavy Mafia presence, instead of a minimum-security prison. He was killed a little more than a month later, by another inmate accused of carrying out the contract.

DOC disciplined four employees after an internal-affairs investigation into the murder. The department declined to comment on the claim.

Hammond and Hill spotlighted Benitez's murder as part of a recent class action lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of inmates in protective custody in prison. DOC wanted to transfer the inmates back into the general population, despite threats on many of their lives from gangs.

DOC has already been blasted by two federal judges for its "deliberate indifference" to the lives of prisoners threatened by gang violence inside the walls.

When federal Judge Richard Bilby heard about the Benitez murder earlier this year, he called it "as close to voluntary manslaughter as anything I'd ever seen in my life"--a statement quoted in the claim.

Bilby also criticized DOC Director Terry Stewart for contributing to a callous attitude toward inmate safety by his statements in the press.

"I think the attitude of the average person is, 'Well, if the director says this is all a bunch of nonsense, to hell with it, and we will go on doing what we are doing.' That is all attitude, sir," Bilby said.

Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: [email protected]