Jury to determine whether guards fatally beat inmate

STARKE, Florida (AP) -- Frank Valdes could have left prison a young man, but he killed a guard and wound up on death row. Now, a jury will decide if four other guards beat him to death.

Prosecutors say Valdes was killed to keep him from telling the media about beatings and mistreatment of other inmates.

Valdes was found lifeless in his cell on July 17, 1999 with 22 broken ribs, partial boot prints on his stomach and neck and fractures of his sternum, vertebrae, nose and jaw, among other serious internal injuries.

Opening statements in the case begin Monday, after almost three months of jury selection in this town where the prison is a major employer.

Defense lawyers say the Florida State Prison guards didn't know about Valdes' plan to talk to reporters, and that he inflicted the injuries himself by throwing himself from his bunk onto the bars and concrete floor of his solitary cell.

Valdes entered the Florida prison system when he was 17 to serve a three-year sentence for burglary. Before his term was up, he was sentenced to death for the shooting death of prison guard Fred Griffis while attempting to help a fellow inmate escape in 1987.

Diagnosed with latent schizophrenia, Valdes was an uncooperative and violent inmate; files show he once pulled a homemade knife on a guard, punched an officer in the nose on another occasion and was known to scream profanities and racist slurs at guards.

He spent the last two years and three months of this life in the prison's disciplinary wing, the same place he was found dead at age 36.

Former corrections officers Timothy Thornton, 36, Charles Brown, 28, Jason Griffis, 28, and Andrew Lewis, 31 were arrested and charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery. If convicted, they face life in prison. All four were fired.

At a recent hearing, inmate Robert Krebs, 64, who worked in the prison's law library, testified that Valdes was trying to get guards to stop beating five inmates who had been transferred after a fight at another facility which caused a guard to have a miscarriage.

Krebs said Valdes feared for his life for standing up to the guards.

"He said he would never live to be executed," Krebs said. An attorney for one of the guards says there is no evidence that any of the officers knew of Valdes' intention to go public with the alleged beatings, and disputed the testimony of several inmates in a pretrial hearing.

"I don't know how you admit evidence this damning against any defendant in any courtroom when you can't prove they had knowledge of it," said attorney Gloria Fletcher.

The jury will hear testimony from some 50 witnesses, including inmates and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who worked for months to break the code of silence among guards.

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