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    Judge may allow inmates' accounts of guards' threats

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 11, 2002

    STARKE -- Inmate Steve Porkolab said he was mopping one of the slick concrete corridors at Florida State Prison when he heard the cries of three black inmates.

    Then, a burly white corrections officer known as "Big Red" turned to him and gave an order.

    "He said, "Go f--- them n------ up,' " Porkolab testified Thursday, recounting the words of Capt. Timothy Thornton, one of four prison guards who will go on trial starting next week in the 1999 death of another inmate, Frank Valdes.

    Porkolab, who is white, said he declined to hurt his fellow inmates that day, telling Thornton: "Captain, you don't want to cross the line, do you?"

    With that, the inmate testified, Thornton ordered Porkolab to take the orange plastic cones that warned of the wet floor and place them on the black inmates' heads. More racial slurs followed, plus beatings that included knees to the groin and heads slammed against walls, according to other pretrial testimony Thursday.

    That account -- vigorously rejected by defense attorneys -- came as lawyers hashed out what the six-member jury should and shouldn't hear when the six-week trial begins Monday. Prosecutors are looking to the testimony of Porkolab and other inmates to recount a chain of events they say led the guards to set upon and kill inmate Valdes several days later.

    Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner indicated he was inclined to allow them to hear the accounts of Porkolab and four other inmates -- a potentially serious blow to the defense even before the trial starts. But Turner won't announce his final decision until today.

    "What these gentlemen are talking about happening just didn't happen," said Thornton's attorney Gloria Fletcher, citing inconsistencies in their stories. "They just can't remember how to tell the same lie each time."

    Fletcher said defense lawyers have discovered the inmates who testified Thursday have been housed and transported together, giving them a chance to compare notes. One major problem with their story, Fletcher said, is that Thornton and corrections Sgts. Charles Brown and Jason Griffis -- all of whom figure prominently in the accounts -- were not working July 4 and 5, 1999, when the prisoners said the violence occurred.

    "How do you accuse a man of beating you on a day when he's not even at work?" Fletcher asked. (The fourth guard on trial, Andrew Lewis, was not implicated by the inmates).

    One of the inmates said he may have confused the dates, but the essence of the story was true.

    Thursday's testimony strikes at the core of a problem that troubles nearly everyone connected to the case: whom to believe?

    Prosecutors point to the undeniable fact of Frank Valdes' disfigured body, which had 22 broken ribs, boot marks on the abdomen and neck, plus many other broken bones.

    But much of the testimony from inside the prison is from inmates with inherent credibility problems. Besides Porkolab, 40, who is serving a life sentence for murder, the other key inmate testimony Thursday came from Willie C. Mathews, 28, who is serving 10 years for battering a law enforcement officer, and Charles A. Jerry, 31, serving life after an armed robbery conviction.

    Prosecutors say their testimony helps show the events that led to Valdes' death. They say the beatings were in retaliation for a miscarriage suffered by a female corrections officer after a prison melee.

    Valdes, an outspoken inmate who was on death row for killing a corrections officer, became angry about the beatings and began a campaign to notify the media, the inmates said.

    According to prosecutors, some guards attacked Valdes to silence him. Guards contend that Valdes fatally injured himself by falling from his bunk and flinging himself across his cell.

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