Inmates' beating testimony can be heard, judge says
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
STARKE -- The murder trial of four former prison guards was delayed Monday as the judge weighed whether jurors should hear potentially damning testimony from inmates who say the guards beat them.
After a weekend spent wrestling with the issue, Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner first indicated the evidence could not be heard. But after prosecutors pressed their argument and more fully laid out their case, Turner said the testimony was relevant and could be used.
The second-degree murder trial is scheduled to start Wednesday, when lawyers will make their opening arguments.
Prosecutors say the evidence in question establishes why the four guards would have wanted to kill death row inmate Frank Valdes on July 17, 1999. It involves two inmates who say they were beaten by the guards on July 10 of that year. Those inmates, plus as many as six others, could be asked to testify that Valdes started a campaign to alert the media about the beatings and that the guards beat him to silence him.
"We think this is extremely significant," prosecutor Mark Moseley said. "It gives the jurors perspective that otherwise they would not have."
Defense lawyers declined to comment Monday.
Valdes was discovered in his cell at Florida State Prison with no pulse, 22 broken ribs, boot marks on his neck and abdomen, three broken vertebrae, a broken jaw and serious internal injuries.
The guards reported that Valdes' injuries were self-inflicted.
Although much of what went on in Turner's courtroom Monday was arcane, the stakes were high. Prosecutors were planning to appeal if Turner didn't allow the evidence to be heard -- a maneuver that could have delayed the trial 30 to 60 days. That would have led to legal questions about the jury of six plus five alternates: Would all of them still be available for a six-week trial after two months of waiting? Could they all remain insulated that long from publicity about the case?
Jury selection took three months, primarily because the prison system is Bradford County's biggest employer and lawyers did not want people connected to the system to sit on the panel.
Judge Turner fretted that even the delay of the trial Monday could cause a problem. "I'm concerned about losing the good will of this jury," he told lawyers.
Earlier, he explained to the panel: "The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind true. It's the truth part of it that we're working on here."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire