When an L.A. federal judge closed his court to the public to hear a case in which a widow had charged the feds with wrongful death in her husband’s murder while doing time in prison, some experts called the judge’s action rare or unconstitutional. Even a federal security officer passing by the sealed courtroom found the move odd.

The secret hearing last month was the latest twist in the tale of the violent deaths of Irv Rubin and Earl Krugel, two local Jewish Defense League activists arrested in 2001 for a plot to bomb a Culver City mosque — both of whom died while in custody.

Krugel’s widow, Lola Krugel, wants to know how and why her husband, a Reseda dental technician, was placed in an exercise yard with David Frank Jennings, a known skinhead and alleged Aryan Brotherhood acolyte, who crushed Krugel’s skull with a chunk of concrete just three days after Krugel arrived.

On July 21, 2009, in the ornate downtown L.A. courtroom of U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, those matters were closed to the press and public.

From a distance, the bomb plot cooked up by Rubin — the JDL’s director and a familiar face around Los Angeles, who continually angled for media exposure, and who was assisted by activist Krugel — was a disturbing version of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The two were arrested for conspiring to blow up the Westside mosque and the office of Lebanese-American congressman Darrell Issa. The Jewish Defense League had long been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group (along with groups like the Nation of Islam).

Then both ended up dead.

Rubin’s shocking 2002 jailhouse suicide came first. He was being held on charges for the bomb plot, and his trial was still a long way off, when officials say he managed to slash his throat with a prison-issued razor, then somehow jumped 18 feet from an upper floor of downtown’s federal Metropolitan Detention Center, dying after nine days in a coma.

Then came Krugel’s even more unsettling death on November 4, 2005, as he started his 20-year sentence in a medium-security federal prison in Phoenix but was promptly bludgeoned to death.

The apparent assailant, 30-year-old Jennings, was an alleged member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a feared prison gang. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, its members comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s prison population but commit 18 percent of all prison murders. The Brotherhood is primarily a crime syndicate that runs prison drug trafficking and prison prostitution, but it carries a nasty racist overlay.

Attorneys for Lola Krugel, the spirited and elfin woman who is Earl’s widow, allege that the U.S. government is culpable for her husband’s death. She did not want to be quoted, but her suit charges that prison officials failed to classify Jennings as an Aryan Brotherhood member despite his gang tattoos.

But within minutes of the start of the late-July trial, as Benjamin Schonbrun, the widow’s attorney, questioned former prison employee Thomas Bond about Jenning’s tattoos, Judge Wilson ordered the court cleared — bending to U.S. government attorneys, who wanted internal prison procedures, such as identifying gang members and gang tattoos, to remain secret.

(The federal government is so obsessed with secrecy in this case, that in a hallway of the federal building, when Assistant U.S. Attorney David Pinchas was asked by L.A. Weekly for his name, he only reluctantly provided it.)

In a statement later, Schonbrun said Wilson acted “without a fair hearing to permit anyone to dispute the necessity for a secret trial. When a federal judge can close an entire trial and exclude our free press, our society suffers.”

Strangely enough, a court order issued by Wilson himself, and publicly available, reveals many key prison procedures that had been expected to come out at the hearing. Moreover, the Aryan Brotherhood tattoos that the federal attorneys are so reluctant to discuss in public were found by the Weekly, readily accessible, on a Web page hosted by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

What is known is that in June 2004, before Jennings was moved to the prison in Phoenix, where he allegedly murdered Krugel, Kimberly L. Beakey, the Bureau of Prison’s “designator of inmates” for the Western region, initially qualified Jennings as a “high-security inmate” — but then “flexed down” Jennings to medium security so he could participate in a drug-abuse rehab program that is unavailable in maximum-security prisons.

Bureau of Prison documents show that Jennings had described himself as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and wore its tattoo — so Beakey specifically noted that further investigation of Jennings was required upon his arrival in Phoenix.

If Jennings was in the Aryan Brotherhood, federal rules required that he be committed to maximum security. At issue at last month’s trial was whether Bond and another prison officer who saw Jennings upon his arrival in Phoenix did enough research before allowing Jennings into the general population, and into the yard where he is believed to have bashed in Krugel’s head.

In 2005, then–Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner said the only way to break the gang was to seek the death penalty against its members for its frequent killings inside prisons. Adding time to already-lengthy sentences did nothing — the gang leaders still found ways to order murders in jail, Jessner said.

Jessner and a team of attorneys obtained a federal racketeering indictment against 40 Aryan Brotherhood members and their associates, 21 of whom were up for the death penalty — the biggest death penalty case in U.S. history. Yet in L.A. late last month, within 24 hours of the secret two-day trial that Wilson insisted upon, Wilson ruled that the government was not culpable for Krugel’s slaying. Even Wilson’s legal basis for the decision is under seal and a secret — and lawyers for the Los Angeles Times are challenging the blackout.

“The bar for winning prison-conditions challenges is extremely high,” notes Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA Law School professor. “Legal standards put a very strong tilt on the scale [in favor of] correctional officers.” Among judges, she says there is a “strong tendency to defer to prison officials.”

Speaking in general, Dolovich says that if a prisoner is known to have targeted white supremacists, prison officials have an obligation to protect that prisoner, who could easily be singled out by the white supremicists, who are common inside prisons.

Judge Wilson knew Jennings had been classified as a skinhead, but before the trial he ruled, “there was no indication” that any inmates were threatening Krugel with ‘bodily harm.’ ” He dismissed the widow’s contention that prison officials should have tried to protect Krugel simply because other prisoners believed a false rumor that Krugel had attempted to “blow up mosques, but he fucked up by blowing up a skinhead shack instead.”

“I think that’s absurd,” Dolovich says of the judge’s ruling. All the news headlines over Krugel and Rubin’s botched conspiracy, “would be sufficient to create a threat” to Krugel inside the prison.

A California prison expert, Dolovich paints a harrowing picture in which gangs rule their prison subcultures in this state. She says that to survive, prisoners must join with those of their skin color, and overcrowding can stretch resources so thin that guards can’t always protect everyone.

“In a lot of cases, the violence that is directed at other prisoners is directed by [gang] leadership,” she says. “The person who does the killing may have nothing against the person they’re killing but has been so ordered to act by their leadership. In many cases, individual prisoners have a hard time resisting what the leadership says because [if they refuse], they’ll be the next victim.”

As to why the scale tilts toward prison officials when a family member like Lola Krugel demands justice for a loved one murdered in prison, Dolovich offers multiple reasons. Among them is that the courts “may be worried about making it too easy for prisoners to recover [monetary awards],” which could lead “the federal courts to be flooded with prisoner suits.”

LA Weekly