Not guilty plea for duo who escaped jail

Plea deal on separate charges also turned down
March 27, 2008 12:45:41 PM PDT
The two men whose daring escape from a New Jersey jail was reminiscent of the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" pleaded not guilty on Monday to escape charges.In addition, James Blunt, who left a taunting note for a guard at Union County Jail who later committed suicide, rejected a plea deal on separate robbery and assault charges.

Blunt and fellow prisoner Jose Espinosa each face a count of third-degree escape, which could add three years to each man's sentence, according to the Union County Prosecutor's Office.

Blunt had already rejected a plea offer that would have sentenced him to 10 years on the robbery and assault charges, plus three more years for the escape.

He could face life in prison on the robbery and assault charges since a weapon was used in the alleged crime, state Superior Court Judge Joseph P. Donohue said. Donohue set a trial for June 2.

Blunt and Espinosa appeared separately for their brief arraignments Monday in state Superior Court, both clad in beige prison jumpsuits with their hands and legs shackled.

At the time they escaped, Blunt was facing robbery and weapons charges stemming from the shooting of a convenience store manager; Espinosa had already pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter. He was sentenced last month to 17 years in prison.

The men escaped on the evening of Dec. 14 by squeezing through a hole they had dug through a cinder block cell wall. They had covered the hole with a pinup photo, a ploy similar to one depicted in "The Shawshank Redemption."

The pair exited onto a third-floor rooftop, then leaped over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

The inmates had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping, and guards didn't raise an alarm until 5 p.m. on Dec. 15.

Blunt left behind a taunting note thanking one guard for his "help." That guard, Rudolph Zurick, 40, committed suicide two weeks after the escape, although investigators have said there is no evidence any guard knowingly assisted the prisoners.

An investigation into the escape revealed that the cells of the two inmates had not been searched for more than two months prior to the breakout.

Two corrections officers and three sergeants face administrative charges stemming from the escape, and all could lose their jobs.

Espinosa, identified by authorities as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was found on Jan. 8 in a basement apartment near the jail. Blunt was arrested the next day at a cheap hotel in Mexico City.