Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ACLU goes to bat for LDS convict

Suit claims inmate denied Mormon books

ACLU files legal action against Louisiana State Penitentiary on behalf of
convicted killer


Advocate staff writer

A Louisiana State Penitentiary inmate, who is near graduation in a Bible st=
program, is being denied Mormon materials, the American Civil Liberties Uni=
claims in a lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge on Friday.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Norman "Chico" Sanders, who has bee=
at Angola since being convicted of killing his estranged teenage wife and h=
high school sweetheart near Houma in 1987.

Sanders, 55, has been a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter Day Saints his entire life. He has ordered and received books relate=
to the Mormon faith during his incarceration but the access ended Dec. 5,
2003, the lawsuit says.

Angola Warden Burl Cain said Friday he's surprised the matter resulted in a
lawsuit because the penitentiary has amended its policy to allow inmates to
receive religious materials from any source.

Packages of books and other literature, which at one time could only come f=
the publisher, are now searched to find out if they contain weapons, drugs =
other contraband. Cain said the problem with Sanders is a mixup in

"To say we don't love the Mormons is bull," Cain said. "We don't have probl=
with any religions. We just worry about morality."

Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney for the ACLU, said Friday that only vendors=
an approved vendors list are allowed to send material to into the

Sanders has requested to expand the list to include Brigham Young Universit=
and other sources of Mormon literature, but his requests have been denied, =

"Only folks on the vendor list can send packages into the institution,"
Schwartzmann said. Sanders contends Mormons are treated differently than
inmates of other faiths, she said.

"We're hoping to get the vendors added to the list and to get Angola to rev=
its policy," Schwartzmann said.

Cain said the lawsuit is pointless because Sanders can renew his request fo=
the material and receive it provided the material does not contain contraba=

The lawsuit says Sanders' receiving the literature "would pose no threat
whatsoever" to the safety of the prison.

"The Mormons are not people you would consider as a subversive organization=
Schwartzmann said.

In addition to the publications, Sanders has also requested that Mormon
religious services be conducted at the penitentiary, but those requests hav=
been ignored, the lawsuit says.

Schwartzmann said Sanders has asked that Mormons be allowed to meet as a
group, a privilege given to members of other faiths.

"Right now they're having to meet in the yard during the general call out,"
she said.

Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said Mormons should =
"fair and equal treatment," which means they should have a place to meet, h=
a minister and discuss their beliefs in a group.

Cain also said he didn't know Sanders and other Mormons wanted a time to me=
together. He said he wouldn't deny such a request to members of any legitim=

"I'll go look and find out what happened to that request," Cain said. "It's=
big prison."

Sanders was sent to Angola on a death sentence in 1990 after a trial in whi=
he admitted to shooting his estranged wife, Kelly Pitts Sanders, 18, and he=
friend, Jamie John Pitre, 17. Authorities maintained Sanders was jealous of
Pitre because Sanders saw Pitre with his wife after the couple had separate=

Sanders' wife was shot once in the face and Pitre died from a gunshot wound=
the back of his head.

Sanders testified during the sentencing phase of the trial and claimed he s=
them while they were in the front seat of a station wagon. Sanders, who was
hiding in the back seat, testified he "just went crazy" after seeing his
estranged wife allegedly performing oral sex on Pitre in the station wagon.

But a Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office detective testified that Pitre's
pants were zipped and his waistband buttoned when police found him.

Sanders fled Louisiana after the shooting, was later found in Juarez, Mexic=
and brought back to Houma for trial.

The jury that convicted Sanders also recommended that he be sentenced to
death. State District Judge Timothy Ellender sentenced Sanders to death, bu=
Sanders was resentenced to life in prison in 1997.

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