In what could be a major breakthrough for prosecutors, a corrections officer has agreed to testify against several other officers accused of beating an inmate to death two years ago.
Fearing for his safety, prosecutors have placed Raymon C. Hanson in protective custody in a secret location.
Hanson, one of the officers who helped violently remove Frank Valdes from his cell the day before he died, has agreed to testify that the official account of the "cell extraction" was false.
"There's an admission that the representations in the use of force report was false," Hanson's attorney, Robert B. Moeller, said in a conference call with a circuit judge Wednesday. Hanson, who was never charged, was suspended after the incident and had been facing the possibility of charges.
The agreement indicates that prosecutors have at least partially cracked the wall of silence that has stymied investigators. Some officers at Florida State Prison have told investigators that testifying against their colleagues could jeopardize their safety and careers.
Eight former prison officers face criminal charges relating to the death of death row inmate Valdes on July 17, 1999. Seven of them are charged with second-degree murder.
But building a case against them has not been easy.
Several prospective inmate witnesses have refused to be deposed by defense attorneys in the Valdes case unless they are moved to different prisons and assured protection.
Former Florida State Prison inmate James H. Williams has asked for emergency court-ordered protection from Circuit Judge Larry Turner, who is presiding over the Valdes trial.
Williams, who unsuccessfully made a similar request in federal court earlier this year, claims that since he spoke to state and federal investigators about the Valdes death, he "has been beaten, tortured, and transferred to seven (state prison) institutions and has been kept in maximum security lockdown since July 1999."
He wants to be transferred to another state.
At least three of the eight charged officers _ Timothy Thornton, Jason Griffis and Charles Brown _ are scheduled to go to trial in late August.
Much of the evidence in the case remains sealed from public view, but testimony from Officer Hanson would ensure prosecutors have more than just complex physical evidence and testimony from inmates.
Hanson was part of the five-man extraction team that had a violent altercation with Valdes when trying to remove him from his confinement cell on the morning of July 17. Initially, Hanson backed up other officers in saying they did nothing improper in controlling a violently flailing inmate.
Unable to walk after the extraction, a bloodied Valdes was wheeled to the prison infirmary, where no major injuries were reported.
Officers returned him to another cell and reported finding him with fatal injuries later that afternoon. Officers contended that Valdes inflicted the injuries himself, with their lawyers saying that he was throwing himself onto his cell floor.
His jaw and most of his ribs were broken, among numerous other injuries, and he had a boot mark on his torso that was consistent with boots seized from Officer Brown's house, court records show.
It's unclear whether Hanson has any knowledge of what, if anything, happened to Valdes after leaving the infirmary. And his cooperation is not necessarily an indication of a strong case for prosecutors.
Last year, when prosecutors charged Officer Montrez Lucas with assaulting Valdes the day before his death, Officer Charles Robert Griffis testified that he saw Valdes punch and slap Lucas.
Defense lawyers produced several other officers to trash Griffis as a "snitch" and chronic liar. Lucas was acquitted, though he has since been charged in the Valdes murder case.