Criminal Justice

Malingering Magluta? Judge Denies Compassionate Release

Sal Magluta in his powerboat racing days.
Sal Magluta in his powerboat racing days. Photo courtesy of Netflix
Though Sal Magluta has physically spent the past 20 years behind bars, his story achieved mythological status when the bingeworthy, six-part documentary Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami was released on Netflix this summer.

Half of the drug-smuggling duo that came to be known as Willy and Sal and was said to have moved 100,000 kilos of cocaine in Miami (a $2 billion enterprise), Magluta spent the 1970s, '80s, and '90s repeatedly embarrassing the U.S. justice system, managing to win acquittals on federal charges of bribery, perjured testimony, and three counts of murder. 

That was in his prime.

Since he was finally convicted of money laundering and obstruction of justice in 2002, Magluta has been serving a 195-year sentence in federal prison on charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice. Anecdotal accounts posted by his family on social media describe the 66-year-old inmate as a shell of the person he once was, a man whose mental and physical health is said to be "rapidly deteriorating."

Late last year, Magluta, who has spent more than a decade in solitary confinement at the nation's highest-security supermax prison, the ADX Florence in Colorado, petitioned U.S. District Court Senior Judge Patricia A. Seitz for compassionate release to home confinement with his 89-year-old mother, adult son, and grandchildren in the west Miami-Dade suburb of Westchester. In a motion filed in December 2020, attorneys Richard Klugh and Martin and Jane Raskin cataloged Magluta's ailments, including chronic kidney disease, Type 2 diabetes, ulcerative colitis, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Last week Judge Seitz denied the motion, stating that "Magluta's health bases lack merit," and that he "remains a danger to the community."

Seitz acknowledged that Magluta had been diagnosed as having a "Serious Mental Illness with a Mental Health Care-3" designation but found that he "refuses or does not participate in treatment and declines out-of-cell recreation time."

With respect to a March 2019 incident in which guards found Magluta eating a bag of medicinal pills and placed him on suicide watch, Seitz quoted medical notes stating that Magluta "was not going to harm himself" and only put the medication in his mouth because it "was the only way he could get anyone to listen to him."

The judge also cited a medical report from February 2017 that found that Magluta's "presentation suggests [an] exagerration of symptoms, likely as a means to assist with facilitating said transfer."

Seitz also questioned the proposal to release Magluta to his elderly mother's home, noting it would have him "living with several family members, some of whom aided him in earlier illegal activities."

Earlier this year, when Magluta's petition was under review, Magluta attorney Richard Klugh told New Times that "Judge Seitz is a highly regarded and compassionate judge. We believe that no one contemplated Sal would serve over two decades in solitary confinement, or that his sentence would prove so torturous mentally and physically that his health would suffer to such an extent."

Asked to comment on last week's ruling, Klugh tells New Times that Magluta, his family, and attorneys are "of course disappointed that relief was not granted," but says they "have the utmost respect for the court and its decision" and "are evaluating appellate and reconsideration options."

At the core of Magluta's original motion for compassionate release is the inhumane nature of solitary confinement, which the United Nations' Special Rapporteur for Human Rights considers for any duration longer than 15 days a "form of torture" and which the Southern Poverty Law Center links to higher rates of suicide among incarcerated individuals. Magluta's motion notes that he has endured more than 20 years in solitary confinement, spending more than 22 hours a day in a "tiny, cement cell about half the size of a parking space...with only a sliver of sunlight through the windows."

“Salvador Magluta has spent decades enduring unthinkable punishment far surpassing what this Court could have contemplated when it first imposed his sentence almost twenty years ago. As a result of the conditions in which he has been incarcerated — namely, indefinite solitary confinement in the nation’s most brutal prison facility — he has been ‘render[ed] physically sick and mentally ill,’” reads another motion in the case filed in June. “Further incarceration would be both excessive and inhumane.”

Other than an incident in 2013 when Magluta was found to have two cell phones in his cell, his offenses as an inmate have been minor — such as a 2017 citation for keeping extra postage stamps in his cell. The majority of violations logged against him concern Magluta keeping an untidy and cluttered cell, which his attorneys contend is a symptom of his deteriorating mental health. Wardens at ADX Florence have reported at least eight times that Magluta was found to be “suffering from a serious mental illness” but stated that he would not be released to another institution based on the “risk of safety and security to staff and risk of escape.”

Magluta's erstwhile partner, Willy Falcon, spent 14 years in prison before being deported to the Dominican Republic.

Though he was never convicted of a violent crime, Magluta has 145 years remaining on his sentence. He will not be eligible for release until 2166.
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson