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Jury pool empties for trial of prison guards

The trial of four former guards charged in the slaying of a death row inmate was thrown into chaos Friday when attorneys ran out of potential jurors before a panel could be seated.

Circuit Court officials had summoned about 1,300 potential jurors _ about 10 percent of Bradford County's licensed drivers _ since the selection process began Oct. 12, but in the end only four were seated.

Six jurors are required, and Judge Larry G. Turner wants an equal number of alternates in place for the trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks.

The rejected jurors were eliminated because of work, school or personal conflicts with the trial's schedule, objections by prosecutors or defense attorneys or preconceptions about what the verdict should be.

The prison system is the largest employer in Bradford and neighboring Union counties, with 3,000 workers at six prisons. Many of the potential jurors work for the system or are close to somebody who does.

Turner doesn't know what to do next.

"I don't have an answer," Turner said. "This is unprecedented in my experience."

Attorneys will return Tuesday to the courthouse to huddle with Turner on a new trial schedule. It may be delayed until next year.

"My inclination is to drop back and punt," Turner said.

Charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery are former correctional officers Timothy Thornton, 36, Charles Brown, 27, Jason Griffis, 28, and Andrew Lewis, 30.

All were all working on X Wing at Florida State Prison on July 17, 1999, when inmate Frank Valdes died.

Prosecutors say Valdes, sentenced to die for murdering a corrections officer, died after a violent confrontation with corrections officers at the prison, about 9 miles west of Starke in northeast Florida. A medical examiner ruled Valdes was beaten to death, saying a boot print was found on his back.

The guards, however, have claimed that Valdes, 36, fatally injured himself by throwing himself off his concrete bunk to the floor. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

Four other guards are scheduled to go on trial next year in Valdes' death.

Friday began with 46 potential jurors still eligible, but prosecution and defense objections eliminated 42 of them.

Turner then called a brief recess and asked both sides if they wanted to reconsider any of their challenges. But neither prosecutors nor the defense would change their minds.

Gloria Fletcher, Thornton's attorney, said she does not want to wait until next year to start the trial.

"These men have lost their jobs and their benefits," she said. "The delay is making their lives worse."

Prosecutor Greg McMahon said the state has looked into seeking a change of venue, but he said laws made it almost impossible for the state to request that a trial be moved to another county.

Hank Coxe, a defense attorney representing Griffis, said he still believes a jury can be found in Bradford County.

"It's doable," he said.