In June, three months after the Justice Department's letter, Arpaio's jailers killed inmate Scott Norberg.
The following year, 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno lodged an official complaint in the courts against the sheriff over the conditions in the jail.
As is common in these cases, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the sheriff in which he agreed to a long list of stipulations designed to alleviate the human misery in his cells.
But Arpaio's capitulation to the Justice Department was hailed by the sheriff, not surprisingly, as a victory over Washington bureaucrats.
If Arpaio's smug declarations were not a shock, the behavior of Napolitano was.
About to declare her own candidacy for Arizona Attorney General, Napolitano joined Arpaio at his press conference in a blatant attempt to court the sheriff's support in her upcoming race.
Napolitano declared the federal lawsuit nothing more than a "technicality" and castigated the settlement as merely "a lawyer's paper" ("U.S. Lawsuit Re-Alleges Abuse in Jails," Tony Ortega, November 6, 1997).
Sheriff Arpaio was thrilled and threw his considerable support behind Napolitano in the election.
The details behind the Justice Department investigation and the reforms that Arpaio agreed to enact should pose little mystery to Barack Obama.
The 1996 letter citing Arpaio's violation of prisoners' constitutional rights was signed by Obama's close personal friend and the current governor of Massachusetts, Deval L. Patrick, then-assistant U.S. attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.
What Obama cannot know is that Janet Napolitano's protection of Arpaio was more nefarious than has been reported.
In a recent interview, the attorney for the deceased Scott Norberg revealed for the first time that Napolitano's behavior went shamelessly beyond simply endorsing Sheriff Arpaio.
In Arizona, the killing of Scott Norberg on June 1, 1996, dogs Arpaio in the press to this day. The story appears whenever an overview of the sheriff is written.
What has never been revealed is the role Janet Napolitano played in protecting the sheriff from indictment.
When an unconscious Norberg did not respond to a deputy's command, the victim was attacked and beaten by nearly a dozen jailers. The initial violence was witnessed by a holding tank full of prisoners. Norberg was then transferred to a restraint chair where he was shackled and further pummeled until he died.
The family's subsequent lawsuit was settled for more than $8 million dollars in 1999, three years after the death and three years after the letter from the Justice Department.
This month, the Norberg family's attorney, Michael Manning, revealed that Sheriff Arpaio was involved in a massive cover-up that provoked the lawyer to turn over evidence to the FBI.
Notes taken by a deputy the night of the killing were destroyed. Critical X-rays were destroyed. County authorities, under the watchful eye of the sheriff, hid the fact that Norberg's larynx was fractured.
When the family's independent autopsy uncovered the larynx fracture, county authorities claimed the damage to the bloody tissue must have occurred following the death, a biological impossibility. After the county demanded to take custody of the larynx, the evidence was then destroyed.
Manning handed over numerous boxes of evidence to the FBI and then submitted to two interviews with Napolitano's staff. He characterized the prosecutors as very excited by the evidence and the interviews.
Keep in mind that, by the time Manning revealed the details of the cover-up and the destruction of evidence, Napolitano had already appeared at a press conference absolving Arpaio of any responsibility in the Justice Department settlements.
Keep in mind, too, that Napolitano was fully aware of the Justice Department settlement details, including Eugene Miller's report that noted in brief: "It is quite evident in watching these [jailhouse] tapes that in each of these incidences that the use of force was unprovoked, unnecessary and, consequently, unjustified and excessive . . . A code of silence appeared to be operating as nurses and other staff were observing the abuse and looked the other way."
Napolitano did not receive the Norberg files from Manning in a vacuum.
"The evidence was compelling," said Manning earlier this month. "The assistant U.S. attorneys took it to Janet, and she said, 'No!'"
Napolitano did more than merely prop up Arpaio after he agreed to settle with the Justice Department.
Presented with the evidence of a criminal conspiracy and the destruction of evidence, Napolitano refused to prosecute Arpaio.
It is no wonder that he then endorsed her bid for election as Arizona Attorney General.
What is surprising is the role they will jointly play in immigration.
Unlike President-elect Obama, Governor Napolitano never pointed us toward horizons that beckoned with promise; instead, she lifted a damp finger ever in search of a breeze.