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Nurse quits job at state prison

Jimmie Burger examined death row inmate Frank Valdes and said he was fit to return to his cell.

The nurse who examined inmate Frank Valdes after his violent confrontation with guards and pronounced him fit to return to his cell has resigned from Florida State Prison.

Nurse Jimmie Burger's resignation comes as investigators for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are focusingon prison medical staff in their investigation into Valdes' death.

Investigators suspect guards may have beaten Valdes to death. They say the inmate, who was on death row for killing a guard, had broken ribs and bootmarks on the upper part of his body.

No one has been charged with a crime.

Burger, 51, resigned Monday. He declined to comment Wednesday. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joellyn Rackleff said Burger's resignation was voluntary.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Valdes' family have raised concerns about the actions of the prison's medical staff on July 17, the day the inmate died.

"I have a serious question about what the nurses did and more importantly what they didn't do," said attorney Stuart Goldenberg.

An attorney for the guards, though, said Valdes was examined for only minor injuries at the prison infirmary after being forcibly removed from his cell. After Valdes was returned to his cell, the guards say, the inmate began climbing his cell bars and throwing himself headfirst onto his steel bed and falling to the floor. Later, a guard said he noticed Valdes wasn't breathing. Several guards said they entered his cell and began CPR, but Valdes was pronounced dead after he was taken to an area hospital.

"We know Mr. Valdes was at the infirmary that day," said Goldenberg's partner Neal Lichtblau. "We want to know when did he go, what did they observe, what condition was Mr. Valdes in when he got to the infirmary and what did they do to treat him?"

So does the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Asked whether he had any reason to suspect that medical staff may have downplayed the extent of Valdes' injuries to help guards cover up a beating, FDLE's assistant executive director Robert Cummings said, "That's part of the investigation."

Robin Rash was one of the nurses on duty when guards took Valdes to the infirmary after forcibly removing him from his cell. He said his role that day consisted of examining the guards while Burger examined Valdes. Rash said he saw Valdes when the inmate was brought into the infirmary and when he left.

"He was conscious," said Rash, 39. "I don't want to say more than that."

Rash said the guards had no injuries. He said he was questioned by FDLE agents after being told he would be fired if he didn't cooperate.

Rash said he believes that Burger correctly reported the extent of Valdes' injuries and that Burger's resignation "had little to do with what's going on _ he was looking to do something else."

Questions also have been raised about another nurse's actions on the day Valdes died. Capt. T.A. Thornton said he notified nurse Denise McEarchern a little after 2 p.m. that Valdes was throwing himself off his cell bars. According to Thornton's report filed later that day: "She stated, "I will pass it on to Nurse Mills on the 4 to 12 shift.' " Shortly after that conversation, Thornton said, he was informed that Valdes wasn't breathing.

If Thornton's account is correct, McEarchern should have done more, according to the state's Correctional Medical Authority. "In my opinion, I think the nurse should have gone down and assessed him," said Kaye Harris, a nurse who is in charge of surveying the medical care given at the state's prisons.

McEarchern, 48, could not be reached for comment.

Thornton and eight other guards have been put on paid leave pending the FDLE's investigation into their actions.

FDLE agents aren't looking only at the medical care Valdes received. Prison officials have said there is also an investigation into the case of Willie Mathews, who lived on the same wing as Valdes.

Mathews was transferred to Florida State Prison after being accused of assaulting a guard at another prison. He has alleged that guards broke his jaw July 10 during a beating and that he was repeatedly denied medical attention. Prison officials have confirmed that a prison dentist initially diagnosed Mathews' problem as a cavity. After Valdes died and Mathews was transferred to a different prison he was diagnosed with a broken jaw and treated.

_ Staff writer Sydney P. Freedberg and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.