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Another Murder by Florida Guards, Another Acquittal

By David M. Reutter

A state jury has acquitted three Florida prison guards in the murder of death row inmate Frank Valdes. The guards, Captain Timothy Thornton, Sgt. Jason P. Griffis, and Sgt. Charles A. Brown, were exonerated of second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit aggravated battery on a prisoner, official misconduct, and accessory to felony murder. Despite taking months to select a jury and four weeks of trial, the jury rendered its decision in only 3 ½ hours. The jury’s decision was a result of the paltry job done by the prosecution or the jury’s composition, perhaps both.

Valdes was on death row at Florida State Prison (FSP) for killing a guard while trying to free another prisoner being transported from Glades Correctional Institution to a doctor’s office. The area around FSP is home to a small rural community that relies upon the $100 million economic impact provided by the employment of 3,000 people who work at the areas five prisons. Of the 11,079 potential jurors available in Bradford County, over 3,000 were called to the courthouse for possible selection in the Valdes murder trial. With only three jurors chosen, of the six jurors and five alternates to be selected, only 55 potential jurors remained in the pool. Of those 55, 25 had links to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). After ending the most arduous jury selection in Florida history, the prosecutor, Greg McMahon, announced the jury contains “a good cross section of the community.” That “cross section” resulted in a panel of five men and one woman, which includes four retirees. The average age was 56. Despite the prosecution proclaiming it worked hard to keep the jury free of the FDOC’s pervasive influence in the area, the “good cross section of the community” had to include seating a retired FDOC corrections lieutenant, who supervised the second shift at a different prison. “He can be balanced,” said McMahon. Apparently, McMahon felt the retired lieutenant’s loyalty to his colleagues within Florida’s Iron Triangle would be extinguished because of the situation that surrounds his wayward son, who is serving a 7½ year federal sentence for a drug charge. Perhaps, the prosecution’s heart was not into obtaining a conviction.

Valdes, after all, was an unsympathetic victim in the public’s eyes. Besides being sentenced to death for killing a guard, he was an uncooperative outspoken prisoner. He refused orders to shave, participate in counts, or to sign forms. He filed numerous grievances, complained of late mail, and needed vegan meals, then later, non-vegan meals. He slashed another prisoner and threatened guards with a homemade knife. However, in guards’ eyes, Valdes’ greatest sin was in threatening to inform the media about the beatings of other prisoners.

On July 3, 1999, five prisoners assaulted guards at Hamilton Correctional Institution. The next day, the Hamilton Five were transferred to FSP’s X wing. A week later, one of the guards involved in the assault had a miscarriage. Soon thereafter, attorney’s, relatives, reporters, and a federal judge received reports that guards on X wing were terrorizing the Hamilton Five. One of those five, Willie Matthews, received a broken jaw from Brown, and he filed an emergency grievance pleading for an investigation “before we are killed.” That grievance was denied as improperly filed, for no irreparable harm was demonstrated, or so the warden said. That same day, Valdes was escorted to the library, and in an agitated state approached prisoner Robert Krebs requesting assistance in contacting newspapers about the beatings. Keebs testified that Valdes told him guards threatened to kill him when the warden went on vacation.

FSP is the worst prison in Florida. In the 1970’s, it was found by a state court to have a higher weekly death rate then the Vietnam War. Since that time, FSP has become a complete lock down facility, and X wing (renamed Q wing) is the end of the road for Florida prisoners. X wing resembles a dungeon with its dual steel doors, and it is the muggiest wing in the prison with its low ceilinged unairconditioned atmosphere. Temperatures in the summer are regularly over 100 degrees, and attitudes on all sides become uncooperative.

On July 16, 1999, Valdes was beat by guard Montraz Lucas as discipline for threats he made to Lucas. That night, Valdes told other prisoners Lucas broke his jaw. In October 2001 a jury acquitted Lucas of that assault. On July 7, 1999, shortly after 8 a.m., Lucas confronted Valdes, but Valdes did not respond to his taunts. Lucas called Capt. Thornton, and 20 minutes later Thornton maced Valdes, which was repeated 20 minutes thereafter. The only sound on X wing for the next 20 to 30 minutes was Valdes gagging. Then the extraction team arrived.

Guard Raymond Hanson testified for the state that he entered the cell and hit Valdes with a stun shield. Valdes went into the fetal position trying to protect himself as much as possible from the onslaught he knew was coming. After Hansen inadvertently stunned another guard with the shield, he exited the cell. But Griffis, Brown, Sgt. Robert Sauls, and Sgt. Andrew Lewis entered the cell and began stomping and beating Valdes, who never responded or fought back. Prisoner Dallas Price testified, “I heard something hit the floor…. It was like dropping a slab of beef from 5 feet in the air.”

After the prolonged beating, Valdes was loaded unconscious onto a cleaning cart and taken to the prison’s medical unit. He was examined by nurse, Jimmie Burger, (now serving 20 years for sexual battery on a victim younger than 12), who said, “I didn’t consider [Valdes] to be in pain, even though he was moaning and groaning.” Around 10:50 a.m. Burger medically cleared Valdes, and guards took him to another cell on X wing. Shortly after 3 p.m., Valdes was found blue, cold, and not breathing in his cell. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 4:18 p.m.

The cover up began immediately. The guards sent a prisoner to clean up the blood from Valdes’ cell. They then contacted their union’s, the Police Benevolent Association, representative, who sent attorneys to the prison to meet the guards. The guards huddled with these attorneys, got their stories to match, and were advised how to write their reports in the prison’s visitation area. Thornton reported he saw Valdes launching himself off of his cell bars onto his steel bunk. At trial, this turned into a defense that Valdes’ injuries were self-inflicted. That defense was soon abandoned after the testimony of two doctors, who performed two separate autopsies on Valdes. They compared his injuries to that sustained in a car or plane crash. They said there was no question Valdes was stomped to death. His injuries: a broken nose; a jaw broken in two places; a broken collar bone, shoulder and sternum; 30 fractures on 22 ribs; four broken vertebrae; and a crushed testicle. One doctor demonstrated how those injuries had to be inflicted: He jumped into the air and pounced on the ground with both feet. Boot marks that matched Brown’s boots were found on Valdes’ face, chest, and back.

Despite this testimony, and the jury taking a tour of X wing, the paltry job of the prosecutor doomed a conviction. McMahon pursued a theory that guards killed Valdes when they brought him to the new cell and beat him for a prolonged period. Problem is, that theory is contradicted by the only eyewitnesses, prisoners on X wing, who said a prolonged beating did not occur in that cell. Those witnesses had obvious creditability problems already. The bigger problem, however, is the prosecution failed to establish the beating inflicted by the guards on trial killed Valdes. The state has charged five other guards with Valdes’ death, and they await trial. The guards on trial blamed those awaiting trial for Valdes’ death. The defense was presented by one of the area’s top criminal defense lawyers, Gloria Fletcher, and the PBA expended about $750,000 on their defense.

In light of the acquittals already handed down, the State is reconsidering the suitability of proceeding to trial against the other five guards. After the acquittal, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was investigating civil rights charges against the guards. The Valdes acquittal marks the second acquittal of Florida guards in the beating death of a prisoner; PLN recently reported the acquittal of guards in the death of a Zephyrhills Correctional Institution prisoner.

The Florida juries, which contain a “good cross section of the community,” have sent their message to Florida’s prison guards: As long as you are a guard and kill a prisoner on duty, we will acquit you. Sadly, it seems forgotten that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Source: St. Petersburg Times; Palm Bach Post.

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