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Florida X-Wing Guard Acquitted in Valdes Beating

The first of five Florida State Prison guards to be tried in connection with the beating death of "XWing" prisoner Frank Valdes was acquitted by a jury in a rural county dominated by the state "corrections" industry.

In the October 1999 PLN we reported. that "XWing" prisoner Frank Valdes was beaten to death July 17, 1999 by Florida State Prison (FSP) guards during a cell extraction. Nine FSP guards were suspended pending investigation.

In the April 2000 issue of PLN we reported that four of the XWing guards were indicted February 2, 2000 on second degree murder charges. The four, Capt. Timothy Thornton, Sgt. Chuck Brown, Jason Griffis and Robert Sauls, are scheduled to be tried in February.

A fifth XWing guard, Montrez Lucas, 31, was charged in November 1999 with aggravated battery, malicious battery on an inmate and coercion to falsify reports, in connection with a confrontation he had with Valdes the day before he was fatally beaten.

State's Attorney (and State Senate candidate) Rod Smith orchestrated the Lucas trial. Smith could have asked the court for a change of venue, but decided to try the case before a jury in Bradford County, home to FSP and three other major state prisons. Smith maintained that he could seat an "impartial" jury in Bradford County.

The court took the unusual step of requiring potential jurors to fill out a detailed questionnaire before jury selection. Of the 63 prospective jurors to complete the questionnaire, 36 said that they worked for the Department of Corrections or had a friend or relative who did. One potential juror, Catherine Reddish, a 30yearold elementary school teacher, replied that her aunt, uncle and grandfather worked for the DOC, as well as many of her friends.

"I will not take the side of an inmate who has already killed an officer over the correctional officer," Reddish wrote, noting that Valdes was on death row for killing a prison guard in 1987. "I believe that correctional officers have a dangerous job and they should be able to protect themselves."

Potential juror Stephen F. Smith, 50, a partner in a local nursery who once worked as a pharmacist at FSP where his brother also works, filled out a questionnaire.

"I don't know this case at all," Smith claimed (despite extensive local press coverage), "but I have seen the goon squad at work." He called the allegations against Montrez Lucas "disgusting if true," but also sounded an empathetic note, adding that "officers have very little recourse in enforcing behavior modification."

Many of the 63 potential jurors, including some who are currently employed by the DOC, responded to the questionnaire with assurances that they could remain impartial and had formed no opinions in the case.

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