To Harry Paesch Jr. it was evidence plain and simple.
Paesch, a prisoner at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Somerset County, says he woke up in his cell Sept. 4 and found a small copperhead snake dead on the floor beside him.
He drafted a two-page complaint alleging that he has been harassed by and received death threats from prison guards, then dropped the dead reptile into a plastic bag, put it in a standard, legal-size envelope and sent it to the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
It took a couple of days for the envelope to arrive at the court clerk's office, and when an employee began to open it, a foul smell permeated the office.
The workers called a deputy with the U.S. Marshals service, who finished opening the package, identified the snake as a copperhead and took photos of it for the case file, according to staff members in the clerk's office.
Paesch is serving a two-year term at the medium-security state prison for drug and robbery offenses.
Yesterday, Michael Miller, a prison official, said the inmate's complaint had sparked an internal investigation. He also said he was not surprised that the snake had found its way into a cell.
"We're in a rural area. There's a creek that runs nearby," said Mr. Miller, the administrative assistant to the warden.
He said snakes are common in the area during the summer and that the poisonous copperhead is seen occasionally.
The prison on the Eastern Shore is about 7 years old, and this is the first time a snake has been found in a cell, he said.
"It could have crawled into the compound. We really don't know how it got in," Mr. Miller said.
Weird packages are not exactly new for the clerk's office, which has received hot dogs and bologna that prisoners claimed were poisoned, letters and legal documents scrawled on onion skins and toilet paper, and once even a check written on a rock. Sometimes the clerks wear gloves when opening the mail.
Deputy Clerk Stephanie Savoy said she used a paper clip to pick up the envelope containing the snake and return it to a container that postal workers apparently had placed the envelope in after getting a whiff of its contents.
"I've seen a lot, but that was the cruddiest," said Nadine Norman, who also works in the clerk's office.
In his 15-year career, said Joseph A. Haas, the clerk of courts, nothing tops the snake.
"Without a doubt, this is the strangest thing I've ever received," he said.