Samuel P. Chavez, who was incarcerated in New Mexico prisons for more than 23 years, will be allowed to dig on the grounds of the Old Main Prison in Santa Fe for items he says will prove his allegations that penitentiary officials performed medical experiments on inmates, sold their organs and blood, and poisoned their water and food.
State District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled Thursday that Chavez can take measurements in the yard of the old prison to orient himself and then conduct a “reasonable amount” of digging to recover what he says will be evidence.
Singleton said Chavez and his attorney should notify her of the date the search is to take place. That way she can resolve any possible disputes between Chavez and the Department of Corrections over what constitutes “reasonable.”
“It’s not like we’re prospecting for oil here,” Singleton said. “We’re not going to dig holes all over Main.”
Singleton said Chavez and his team, which will include three attorneys and an investigator, will also be allowed to traverse underground passageways at the prison in an attempt to discover if the site of a second cache of alleged evidence remains undisturbed.
Chavez, convicted of second-degree murder in 1988, was released from prison in 2012. He claims in a civil rights lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections in 2007 that he was mistreated, causing the loss of his eyesight. He said he spent more than a decade in solitary confinement.
Chavez’s attorney, Francisco Macias, who participated in Thursday’s hearing via telephone, said his client hopes to find ledgers he buried in the 1990s that contain documents signed by prison officials who are named as defendants in his lawsuit. He said the documents also contain names of inmates used as guinea pigs, the types of procedures performed, and the details of profits made from the sale of prisoners’ organs and blood.
Chavez also hopes to find “sealed glass container signed and dated by defendants … containing toxins and chemical substances labeled and introduced into the food and water supplies ingested by prisoners throughout the entire [Penitentiary of New Mexico Complex],” according to an outline provided by Macias’ office.
Singleton said if Chavez finds documents during the search, attorney Zachary R. Cormier should take possession of them without inspecting them, then bring them to her, where they “will be opened in open court.” Cormier represented the Department of Corrections at Thursday’s hearing.
The judge directed the parties to arrange for a hazardous materials team from an agency not connected to the Department of Corrections to transport any chemical substances found during the search.
Singleton said Chavez also will be allowed to tour and photograph one of the cells where he was held in solitary confinement.
Chavez was a prisoner representative during implementation of the Duran Decree, a policy governing conditions after the 1980 prison riot. He alleges in his suit that prison officials tried to have him killed because of those efforts and because of his work as a “jailhouse lawyer,” helping other inmates navigate the justice system.
Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli, who worked with Chavez during the implementation of the decree, said earlier this year that he isn’t involved in Chavez’s current case but had always found the former inmate to be a “reliable and credible” person.
The Department of Corrections has denied Chavez’s allegations. Warden German Franco appeared at Thursday’s hearing and said he was amenable to the search as long as there were limits to its scope. Franco said Chavez shouldn’t be allowed to go on a “hunting” expedition at the prison, which is now open to the public for tours.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @phaedraann.