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    Prosecutors say attorney eavesdropped

    A defense attorney in an inmate murder trial allegedly recorded a private strategy session.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


    GAINESVILLE -- The prosecution of four prison officers accused of beating an inmate to death took a dramatic turn Wednesday, when one of their attorneys was accused of secretly recording a private prosecution strategy session.

    Wednesday's stunning allegation in a Gainesville courtroom provided the latest twist in a nearly two-year murder investigation that put Florida's prison system under intense scrutiny. Prosecutors have faced a wall of silence among officers at Florida State Prison, and lately appear to be shifting strategy.

    Assistant State Attorney Greg McMahon said that in the next 10 days, more people will face charges relating to the death of prisoner Frank Valdes and that charges may be added and reduced among the four officers already awaiting trial. Last month, officials also charged Officer Dewey Beck with manslaughter by culpable negligence, official misconduct, accessory to murder after the fact and perjury, though he will be tried separately.

    McMahon, who inherited the prosecution of the case in recent months, said that as he got up to speed, he saw the need to reframe some charges and pull in more defendants. He acknowledged the challenge prosecutors have in dealing with a closed prison culture and inmate witnesses with potentially suspect credibility.

    The trial of Capt. Timothy Thornton, Sgt. Jason Griffis, Sgt. Charles Brown and Sgt. Robert Sauls was scheduled to begin July 16, the day before the second anniversary of Valdes' death. But the wrinkles added Wednesday are likely to mean a delay.

    What was supposed to be a routine hearing on motions Wednesday turned fiery over the allegations against Sauls' attorney, James Neel of Fort Myers.

    Based on sworn statements from other defense teams and a member of the prosecution, Circuit Judge Larry Turner told Neel to prepare to show why he shouldn't be held in contempt for the alleged recording. Neel could also face felony charges, and the judge several times reminded him he had the right to remain silent and seek a lawyer.

    The allegations stem from an April 18 hearing in which Neel and others in the trial participated by phone. A recess was called so prosecutors could speak privately on the conference call.

    The defense lawyers were ordered to hang up, but other defense lawyers say Neel later told them he picked up the phone again, heard the prosecutors' discussion and recorded it. They say he tried to give them copies of the tape, but they refused them.

    Neel declined to comment specifically on the eavesdropping allegation but described the charges as "retaliation" by the other defense lawyers.

    He said he has refused to follow their game plan because Sauls had far less contact with Valdes the day he died than the other officers did. He allowed Sauls to be interviewed by prosecutors and said they have been discussing a plea bargain.

    In calling for Neel's removal from the case, the other defense teams also said Neel created a conflict of interest by agreeing to represent Jimmie Burger, a Florida State Prison nurse and key Valdes witness, in appealing a sex offense conviction. They complained of Neel providing prosecutors with too much information about the guards' whereabouts the day Valdes died, which defense attorney Henry Coxe said showed clear "incompetence."

    "We cannot trust Mr. Neel," said Coxe, who represents Griffis. "We do not believe that our clients are going to get a fair trial with that same lawyer participating before the jury."

    The four officers had a violent confrontation with Valdes when they forcibly removed him from his cell on the morning of July 17, 1999. They say they then took him to the infirmary to be checked and never touched him after returning him to a cell. Whatever injuries killed him, they contend, were caused by Valdes hurling himself onto the cement floor.

    All of Valdes' ribs were broken, and he had boot prints on his upper body.

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