Inmate advocates say it will be hard to find an impartial jury for four guards accused of killing a prisoner.
More than 80 people _ some wearing Corrections Department T-shirts and Florida State Prison jackets _ filled a Bradford County courtroom Thursday to show support for four guards who made their first court appearance on charges they beat an inmate to death.
The four guards, who appeared in court by video from the Bradford County jail, were fired by the Department of Corrections on Thursday for their role in the allegedly fatal beating of death row inmate Frank Valdes on July 17.
A second-degree murder indictment unsealed Thursday accused the officers of killing Valdes "by kicking and striking him with their feet and hands." The Department of Corrections letter firing the guards also said they "failed to summon medical assistance" for Valdes.
An autopsy report showed that Valdes' ribs were broken, there were boot marks on his upper body and his testicles were swollen.
The four Florida State Prison guards, who were indicted and jailed Wednesday, were released Thursday evening after a judge lowered their bail from $100,000 to $25,000.
Capt. Timothy A. Thornton, Sgt. Jason P. Griffis, Sgt. Charles A. Brown and Sgt. Robert W. Sauls could face up to life in prison.
Investigators had difficulties persuading employees to provide evidence against their corrections colleagues.
Tim Moore, Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner, conceded that the investigation has been prolonged and difficult, but he said it would continue because the prison system should be held accountable.
"To those few who might be of like-mind _ and I emphasize few and might be _ this is fair warning," Moore said. "This kind of behavior will not be tolerated."
Moore appeared at a news conference after the hearing with Michael Moore, secretary of the Department of Corrections and State Attorney Rod Smith.
"I think it is wrong to believe that this case is an indictment of the Department of Corrections and all the people who do their job in law enforcement every day," said Smith, who is running for the state Senate in north central Florida.
The guards' trial would take place in Starke, but inmate advocates say it will be difficult to select an impartial jury because of the area's heavy reliance on the prison system for jobs.
Randy Berg, director of the Florida Justice Institute, said the community support demonstrated in the courtroom Thursday could influence a possible verdict if the trial is not moved.
"The entire prison industry is the leading industry of that area," Berg noted. "It's going to substantially influence the eventual outcome of the trial no matter how careful the judge and the state attorney might be."
Smith said he would seek an impartial jury in the small town. He said it was a terrible time for the guards' families.
"I will stand with the families as long as they are standing on the right side of the line," Smith said. "If they cross that line, I will not be there."
Reports filed by the guards immediately after Valdes' death say an altercation took place when Valdes was forcibly removed from his cell. The guards contended that the inmate was fatally injured later when he threw himself off his bunk and cell bars.
Nine officers were suspended without pay after the death. In November, Sgt. Montrez Lucas, one of the nine, was arrested and charged in connection with an altercation with Valdes the day before the inmate's death.
Lucas was fired Thursday as well. His firing letter said that on June 15, a month before Valdes' death, Lucas told a group of correctional officer recruits that it was all right to falsify excessive force reports as long as the reports were verified by others.
"You relayed stories to the recruits about past personal experiences during which you violated, by your own admission, Department of Corrections rules and state statutes by applying excessive force, inappropriately using excessive chemical agents and electrical restraining devices, and failing to report such violations," said the letter from regional director George Denman of the Department of Corrections.
Several new policies have been put in place since Valdes' death, including an agreement with the FDLE concerning procedures for reporting inmate deaths. Other improvements include cameras on X Wing, where Valdes was housed, and videotaping any incident where guards have to use force.
Moore, the corrections secretary, said the death was a difficult incident for the prison system.
"We need to keep our chins up and just move forward in this case," Moore said.
Population: 24,777 (1998)
Area: 293 sqaure miles. Only Union (240) and Pinellas (280) are smaller.
County seat: Starke
Median household income: $28,225
Unemployment: 3.6% (1996)
Living in poverty: 18%
Dependence on prisons: There are 17 major prisons in the Department of Corrections district surrounding Starke. They provide jobs to more than 8,200 people, more than any other DOC district in Florida.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 1999 World Almanac, Department of Corrections.