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    Pool of jurors has ties to prison

    As a former prison guard charged with beating an inmate prepares for trial, those who may judge him have mixed feelings.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


    STARKE -- In a county where Florida's prison system is the chief industry, many in the large "family" of corrections employees are standing by five former prison guards charged after the 1999 death of inmate Frank Valdes.

    But that support is far from unanimous, according to questionnaires completed Monday by potential jurors in the trial this week of Montrez Lucas, 31, the first of the guards to answer to the charges.

    Lucas is charged with aggravated battery, battery on an inmate and coercing someone to alter official reports of a physical confrontation he had with Valdes the day before Valdes died at Florida State Prison in Starke.

    Four other guards charged with second-degree murder will be tried later.

    The questionnaires completed Monday by potential jurors in Lucas' trial indicate that Bradford County residents, despite their reliance on and allegiance to the prison system, are conflicted over the issue of whether the guards went too far in handling a difficult prisoner.

    "I don't know this case at all, but I have seen the (prison) goon squad at work," wrote Stephen F. Smith, 50, a partner in a local nursery who once worked as a pharmacist at Florida State Prison, where his brother also works.

    He said he once saw corrections officers hold an inmate while one of them kicked him in the crotch. He also called the allegations about Montrez "disgusting if true," but also sounded an empathetic note, adding, "officers have very little recourse (in) enforcing behavior modification."

    On the other side was Catherine A. Reddish, a 30-year-old elementary school teacher whose aunt, uncle and grandfather have worked for the state's prison system, as well as many friends.

    "I will not take the side of an inmate who has already killed an officer over the correctional officer," Reddish wrote, noting that Valdes was on death row for killing a prison guard. "I believe correctional officers have a dangerous job and they should be able to protect themselves."

    Of the 63 prospective jurors to fill out the questionnaires, 36 either worked for the state corrections department or had a friend or relative who did. Their comments were varied, including those of some current corrections officers who said they had formed no opinions in the case.

    Given their statements and their positions well down the list of potential jurors, neither Smith nor Reddish are likely to sit on the panel that will judge Lucas.

    But their words and those of their peers present a picture that is far from the image of utter solidarity on display last spring when more than 80 prison employees filled a courtroom in a defiant display of support for the guards.

    The questionnaires were an unusual step taken by court officials who are straining to pick a fair and impartial jury in a region where the prison culture is so dominant.

    Jury selection is expected to be completed today and the trial is slated to last through the week, with Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner presiding.

    Lucas was charged in November and was fired in February after a grand jury indicted the other four guards in Valdes' death.

    Once an instructor in the officers training academy, he became a central figure in the investigation that has led to several reforms at Florida State Prison, including a new system to videotape prisoners being "extracted" from their cells.

    The events that led to Valdes' death began when he refused to submit to handcuffs and leave his cell after threatening to kill Lucas, who was a sergeant.

    Lucas is alleged to have caused "great bodily harm" to Valdes that day, July 16, 1999. The inmated died the following day after a "cell extraction team" removed him from his cell.

    An autopsy showed that nearly all Valdes' ribs were broken and he had boot marks on his upper body. His scrotum was said to be swollen to the size of an orange.

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