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Trial of 4 guards in Valdes case put off

In this community dominated by prisons, it may not be impossible to find an unbiased jury to try four corrections officers accused of beating an inmate to death.

But it's proving harder than anyone imagined.

The murder trial of the former Florida State Prison officers on Tuesday was delayed at least until January, because of difficulties seating a six-person jury.

Circuit Judge Larry Turner agreed to summon another 800 Bradford County residents so prosecutors and defense lawyers can continue slogging through jury selection. He's also hoping to find more jurors among more than 360 called for other Bradford cases.

Since jury selection began more than five weeks ago, some 1,300 prospective jurors have been summoned for the case, and only four jurors have been picked. After the additional residents are summoned, it will mean at least one in five eligible Bradford County jurors has been called for the high-profile case.

Attorneys hope to pick two more jurors and six alternates from the additional potential jurors.

"If we don't, we back up and punt," Turner said.

Many potential jurors have been excused because they say they can't afford to take four to six weeks off work for the trial. Even more were excused because they seemed biased. One prison employee last week was excused after tearfully telling the judge she feared retaliation if she voted to convict the officers.

Around Bradford County, prisons are by far the biggest employer, and most everybody knows or is related to someone who works behind razor wire.

Trials are sometimes moved out of areas where a jury pool is believed to be tainted, but that's almost always done to protect the rights of the defendants _ not prosecutors.

In this case, the defendants don't want the trial moved. Prosecutors say they can find little or no legal argument to push for a new trial location until it can be shown a jury simply can't be selected from the community where the crime allegedly occurred.

"The law is very strongly against the state obtaining (a change of venue) and it surviving on appeal," Gainesville-area State Attorney Bill Cervone said recently.

The four officers _ Timothy Thornton, 36, Charles Brown, 27, Jason Griffis, 28, and Andrew Lewis, 30 _ are among eight officers implicated in the July 1999 beating death of inmate Frank Valdes, 36.

Valdes, on death row for killing a corrections officer, was discovered without a pulse in his solitary confinement cell. He had multiple injuries, including 22 broken ribs and boot marks on his torso. Officers reported that he injured himself, rolling off his bed and jumping off his cell bars.

Four other officers charged in the case are expected to be tried next year, but no date has been set.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.