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    Judge, jury tour murder scene

    In an unusual courtroom move, the group inspects the cell where Frank Valdes was killed.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    STARKE -- Deep within Florida State Prison is the spartan room, no larger than a walk-in closet, where inmate Frank Valdes died violently 15 months ago, launching an investigation that has rocked the state's corrections system.

    It is a windowless space with three concrete walls painted beige, a thick iron door, a concrete slab for a bed, a red tile floor and a stainless steel toilet. The green vinyl sleeping pad is folded in half.

    Here, on July 16, 1999, prison guard Montrez Lucas is alleged to have broken Valdes' jaw. Here, the very next day, four other prison guards launched a rough-and-tumble effort to "extract" Valdes from his cell and now are charged with second-degree murder for allegedly beating him to death.

    But on Wednesday as jurors in Lucas' aggravated battery case toured the scene of Valdes' death, there were only the imagined echoes of the cursing and yelling and hard physical contact that, according to some witnesses, occurred that day in cell No. 1203 along a cramped hallway called X-wing.

    Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner had ordered silence during the extraordinary tour, which was said by court and prison officials to be the first of its kind at Florida's toughest prison.

    Warden James Crosby Jr. led the way, guiding a wary and curious cluster of 25 visitors. Besides jurors, the group included lawyers, reporters and Lucas himself, once an up-and-coming corrections sergeant who was fired earlier this year along with the four other guards.

    "Anybody nervous?" the judge asked quietly, having left his black robe back at the courthouse 10 miles down the same two-lane road where demonstrators have held vigils over the years during Florida's many executions.

    The solemn group shuffled in through four banks of thick iron bars. They walked under the sign that warns "Security is not an accident." They turned right down the prison's central corridor, a quarter-mile stretch of beige concrete walls and shiny tile floors and 15-foot-high ceilings with exposed pipes and open fluorescent bulbs. They strode past the inmate barber shop and the library and the movie projection room, all as corrections officers kept the prison's 800 occupants out of sight in a condition known as "lock down." Most of them were scheduled to be in their cells anyway. It was after 5 p.m. -- dinner time.

    When the group arrived at X-Wing, a hallway with six cells that is reserved for the prison's most incorrigible inmates, judge Turner took the lead.

    As if playing host, he guided the jurors and others two and three at a time into the cell. He closed the door and allowed them to study the room. In the hallway were the video cameras installed by the state Department of Corrections after Valdes' death.

    The geography of the cell had been an issue earlier Wednesday in the more conventional setting of Bradford County's main courtroom.

    There, prosecutor Mark Moseley began to build his case against Lucas, saying in his opening statement that Lucas handcuffed Valdes through an opening in the metal door, then entered the cell and struck him several times in the face, breaking his jaw, after Valdes had challenged him.

    Through two other witnesses -- warden Crosby and inmate Dallas Johnny Eugene Price -- the prosecutor also tried to establish that Valdes was in so much pain he recruited neighboring inmates on X-Wing to ask the guards for Tylenol then secretly give it to him.

    The passing of food, medicines or any other items is prohibited on the wing, but prisoners do it anyway, Crosby testified. They use a trick known as "kiting" or "fishing," employing fishing line to guide and pull items between cells.

    The jurors saw first-hand the extreme difficulty of such a process, which requires inmates to overcome impossible angles and regular inspections by guards.

    "If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed it," said Crosby, who witnessed an X-Wing prisoner "kiting" on videotape. "But, yes, it is possible." Inmates, he told the jury, can get "extremely creative."

    Lucas' attorney, public defender Johnny Kearns, made the point during cross-examination how difficult the process would have been in X-Wing. He also pointed out that the metal door to Price's cell was closed, increasing the difficulty.

    There for jurors to see Wednesday were the closed doors of the other cells. The slits under the doors appeared to be less than a quarter-inch high, perhaps enough space to pass a thin magazine.

    In his opening statement, Kearns also attacked the account of Charles Griffis, a corrections officer who was on duty with Lucas and who is expected to testify today that he witnessed Lucas striking Valdes.

    Blaming Valdes' injuries on the other four guards, Kearns said Lucas never struck the inmate or entered his cell. Kearns charged that Griffis made racist comments about Lucas, who is black, and resented Lucas for attaining the rank of sergeant.

    Along with about 10 members of Lucas' family, the trial also has been attended by an equal number of corrections officers, former co-workers who came to offer moral support.

    But Turner told them Wednesday to refrain from wearing their brown on beige uniforms to the courtroom for the rest of the trial. He cited one case in Union County -- the trial of an inmate accused of killing a guard -- where the jury was influenced by the presence of uniformed corrections officers.

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