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Florida Guards Acquitted in Brutality Case

Florida prisoner John Edwards, 28, an HIV+ double-murderer serving a life sentence, was transferred to the Charlotte Corr. Institution (CCI) on Aug. 18, 1997 after biting a Zephyrhills prison guard on the cheek. According to federal prosecutors, once Edwards arrived at CCI he was subjected to beatings and sadistic abuse so severe that he tried to kill himself; he bled to death while strapped naked to a metal bunk.

Following an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office, ten prison employees eight at CCI and two from the Zephyrhills prison were indicted in July 1998 on civil fights and conspiracy charges in connection with Edwards' death. All were removed from their jobs. [See: PLN , Oct 98].

Three of the CCI guards, Robert M. Shepard, Thomas J. McErlane and John D. Robbins, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their former co-workers in exchange for potentially lighter sentences. The remaining defendants, Capt. Donald Abraham, Capt. Kevin Browning, Sgt. Michael Carter, Sgt. Gary Owen, and guards Richard Wilks, Paul Peck and Joseph Delvecchio, went to trial in Fort Myers on Jan. 6, 1999.

Former CCI guard Shawn Grueber testified that Capt. Abraham had been informed of the biting incident at Zephyrhills and had targeted Edwards for retaliation. When Edwards stepped off the transport bus at CCI he was met by a "welcoming committee" of eight guards, including two Zephyrhills transport officers, and herded into a cell.

There, according to testimony by former CCI guard Robert Shepard, Edwards was slammed into walls and punched and kicked while in restraints. Shepard said Capt. Abraham was present during the beating and later told the guards to file false reports stating that Edwards had been "combative" and needed to be "restrained."

Former CCI guard John Robbins described a campaign of brutality that he and other guards inflicted on Edwards over the next several days. One guard "airmailed" Edwards' meals by slinging the food tray into his cell and making him lap it up off the floor, Robbins said. After continuous beatings, abuse and intimidation, Edwards was so cowed that he would kneel down and place his head on the ground when guards approached his cell.

On Aug. 21, 1997, three days after arriving at CCI Edwards slashed the insides of his forearms in a suicide attempt. Nurses bandaged the cuts while his hands were cuffed behind his back, but didn't stitch them; he was stripped naked and strapped to a metal bunk.

Robbins testified that Capt. Browning kicked, punched and slapped Edwards while he was semi-conscious, and invited a prisoner orderly to "get some licks in." Then, said Robbins, Browning "began pulling hairs from [Edwards'] eyebrows, from his chest and from his thighs. Every time he pulled one he'd say, 'Boy, that's got to hurt.'"

Edwards lay strapped to the metal bunk for 12 hours, occasionally calling for water. The next morning he was dead. According to the coroner's report his death was caused by massive blood loss and gross medical negligence.

At trial, the defendants denied participating in any abuse. Capt. Abraham said he did nothing to harm Edwards or to cover up misconduct by other guards; he acknowledged that force was used but denied witnessing any beatings. The Zephyrhills transport officers said they weren't present when the alleged brutality took place.

Defense attorneys argued that the three CCI guards who pleaded guilty were the ones who beat and tormented Edwards, and were trying to shift the blame to other staff members. The defense also attacked the credibility of the witnesses, who admitted they had initially lied to state officials investigating Edwards' death. Prosecutors accused the defendants of portraying Edwards as a vicious criminal who "got what he deserved."

After deliberating nine hours the jury reached a verdict on Jan. 15, 1999, finding the defendants not guilty on all counts. "We felt something happened, but these guys didn't do it," said juror Sam Kirkland. Other jurors cited contradictory testimony as to which guards were present during the beatings, and said they didn't feel the prosecution had presented enough evidence to convict.

The defendants, their families and their attorneys were jubilant when the acquittals were announced. Less elated was Norma Edwards, John Edwards' mother. "I think what my son must have went through," she said. "I feel like his death was in vain if they're not going to improve the prison situation."

CCI officials increased security at the facility following the verdict in case there was unrest among the prison population. No disturbances were reported.

The three former CCI guards who pleaded guilty will be sentenced later this year.

St. Petersburg Times, Charlotte Herald Tribune, Ft. Myers News-Press, Charlotte Sun

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