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Trial involving prisoner's death nears for guards

Guards haul an injured inmate to the prison's medical wing.

Surrounded by officers in uniforms, the inmate won't speak. But when nurses are left alone with him, he tells how guards roughed him up.

Investigators encountered this scenario repeatedly during the course of their inquiry into the beating and torment of Charlotte Correctional Institution inmate John A. Edwards.

Edwards slashed himself on Aug. 21, 1997, and bled to death while in restraints.

The ensuing investigation led to the indictments of 10 former officers and supervisors, the largest single indictment of guards in state history.

The men are accused of violating Edwards' civil rights and conspiring to cover up their actions. Jury selection in their trial begins Tuesday in Fort Myers.

It is one of the most sweeping civil rights cases to pass through the U.S. Attorney's Office in Florida.

By the end of the 16-month probe, investigators suspected a clique of rogue officers and supervisors had been breaking rules and treating inmates roughly at the Charlotte prison for years.

At the outset of the Edwards probe, investigators questioned many suspected of belonging to "The Family."

As the Edwards case snowballed, it did not escape investigators' notice that two officers, Capt. Kevin Browning and Capt. Donald B. Abraham, who shared reported links to The Family, also shared a history of abusing inmates.

The pair had worked together in the late 1980s at the Central Florida Reception Center. Personnel records show they were suspended for shoving an inmate against a wall and punching him.

Browning also was disciplined for failing to file a report showing he had used force on a second inmate at that prison.

Edwards, who was HIV-positive, was transferred to Charlotte on Aug. 18, 1997, after he bit an officer in the face at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County.

His transfer was meant as punishment. Home to some of Florida's most violent felons, Charlotte is considered one of the toughest prisons in the state. Half of its roughly 1,100 inmates are mentally ill. Many require psychotropic medication to remain stable.

Hours before Edwards arrived, a Zephyrhills supervisor said he called Charlotte's Col. Jack White to warn that the prison was getting a "biter."

Shortly after the call from Zephyrhills about Edwards, Abraham spread word among co-workers that the prisoner would suffer retaliation, according to testimony from former officer Shawn Grueber. Abraham warned other officers not to make unnecessary visits that night to "B Dorm," the administrative confinement wing where Edwards would be housed, Grueber testified.

Grueber, who had worked at the prison for only 10 days, also described how Abraham pulled him aside and ordered him to be present at the gate when Edwards arrived. Abraham wanted to show Grueber "how we do things at Charlotte," Grueber said.

As soon as Edwards stepped off the transport van, witnesses said, a group of eight guards, including the two Zephyrhills transport officers, hustled him into a cell. They then swarmed over the prisoner, showering him with taunts, kicks and punches.

Over the next three days, former officer Robbins testified, certain guards continued to wage a campaign of abuse against Edwards. They flung Edwards' food on the floor, then forced him to lap it up. They pummeled him with his meal tray. They instructed him to bow down whenever they approached his cell.

Three days later, Edwards slashed his inner arms with a small blade, slicing a vein.

He was taken to the prison's medical wing. There, nurses bandaged but chose not to stitch his cuts. He was then strapped in restraints to a metal rack.

Edwards lay there for 12 hours, calling out periodically for water. The next morning a nurse found him dead.

An autopsy ruled Edwards died of massive blood loss. However, the medical examiner also cited gross medical negligence as a contributing factor.

A state panel later investigated eight of the nurses who treated Edwards. Two have since resigned.