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For the sake of justice

The trial of the four prison guards accused of beating an inmate to death should be moved to a place where an unbiased jury can be seated.

The state has taken the first step toward a public accounting of the alleged beating death of Florida State Prison inmate Frank Valdes at the hands of the men guarding him. An Alachua County grand jury has handed up second-degree murder indictments against four prison guards who were part of a team trying to forcibly remove Valdes from his cell. The next step is to make sure the trial is fair to both the defense and prosecution by moving it to a location where the jury pool will be certain to be free from bias.

Prosecuting prison guards for inmate abuse is notoriously difficult. The crime victims usually are less than sympathetic _ Valdes was on death row for murdering a prison guard _ and fellow prison guards who may have witnessed abuse often refuse to cooperate with prosecutors.

In the Valdes case, the grand jurors clearly didn't believe the wild accounts of the guards that Valdes caused his own death by throwing himself off his bunk and cell bars _ not when the autopsy showed that all the man's ribs were broken, his testicles were swollen and boot marks marred the upper part of his body. But beyond determining that Valdes had died from a beating, the grand jury had to determine who among the guards may have participated. The four men indicted were all part of a five-man "cell extraction team" called to remove an insubordinate Valdes from his cell on the day he died.

As the state prepares to try these men, venue should be a central issue. For the sake of fairness, the trial should be moved to a location where the jury pool is predominantly free of connections to the Department of Corrections. That's not true in Bradford County, where the crime occurred. It's a rural, sparsely populated county where the prison system is a primary employer. Seating an impartial jury there would be well nigh impossible.

Officer Donald Stanford, one of the suspended guards who has not been indicted, said it best: "(Prosecutors) won't have any chance of convicting (the guards) in Bradford County or Union County, because everybody there either knows somebody or is related to somebody" working in the prison system.

Prosecutors rarely ask for a change of venue, because it's a legally risky move. Appellate courts don't look kindly on trials that have been moved at the request of the prosecutor and routinely overturn convictions when the defendant objects. It's worth the risk in this case, though. The insularity of Bradford County, coupled with the intensity of emotions that will surround the trial, makes it imperative that the trial be held in a community less vested in the outcome.

Since Valdes' death, other disturbing reports of prisoner abuse have emerged. Containing prison guard brutality is a challenge for any corrections system, but forcefully punishing those found to have engaged in it is a good start. By prosecuting those guards accused of hitting, kicking and stomping a man so savagely that he died, the state is sending a message that prisoner abuse will not be tolerated. To keep those prosecutions from being an empty exercise, the trial should be moved.

The indicted guards are:

Capt. Timothy Thornton

Sgt. Charles A. Brown

Sgt. Jason P. Griffis

Sgt. Robert W. Sauls