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    Guards paint 'snitch' as a liar

    The prosecution's key witness is also described as a resentful racist in the trial of a former guard accused of striking an inmate.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


    STARKE -- Prison guards have a word for people like Charles Robert Griffis, a Florida corrections officer who nervously testified Thursday against a former colleague.

    "Snitch."

    Jurors in the trial of ex-corrections officer Montrez Lucas heard it numerous times during a day of testimony that offered telling glimpses of the close-knit and protective fraternity of Florida prison guards and their families.

    The 30-year-old Griffis was clearly uneasy on the stand, speaking haltingly, sometimes inaudibly, and twice coming close to tears as he told his story to a Bradford County jury.

    He said he stood right behind Montrez Lucas on July 16, 1999, as Lucas disciplined inmate Frank Valdes inside cell 1203 on Florida State Prison's notorious X Wing. He said he saw Lucas, then a corrections sergeant, slap and punch Valdes after the handcuffed inmate threatened to kill Lucas and used racial slurs against him.

    Lucas' family and several prison guards watched with scorn from the courtroom gallery Thursday as Griffis became the prosecution's key witness in a case that finds Lucas charged with aggravated battery, malicious battery against an inmate and coercing someone to file a false report.

    Later in the day, several of the officers who had watched Griffis from the courtroom were called up to testify in Lucas' defense, saying Griffis has a reputation as a chronic liar.

    "In a nutshell," said officer George A. McCormick Jr., "if Charlie Griffis tells you it's raining outside, you better look out the window."

    The jury is expected to hear final arguments today.

    Lucas, 31, of Lake City has not been charged in a related second-degree murder case against four other guards accused of beating Valdes to death the following day, cracking nearly all his ribs and leaving boot prints on his body.

    He is, however, accused of breaking the inmate's jaw with his punches.

    Earlier this week, Medical Examiner William F. Hamilton testified that the jaw injury was consistent with a hard blow to the left side of Valdes' face, but he could not say which day it happened.

    Lucas' defense is that the jaw was broken by the other guards on July 17, 1999, as they tried to remove a defiant Valdes from his cell. His lawyer, assistant public defender Johnny Kearns, told jurors that Lucas never entered the cell and that Griffis is testifying against Lucas because he is racist and resentful at not being elevated to sergeant himself. Lucas is black.

    Griffis, wearing an ill-fitting dark suit, admitted he once struck a prisoner himself. He also said he initially lied about the incident to investigators while under oath. But after speaking with prison officials and investigators for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who told him he might be prosecuted, Griffis agreed last October to tell his story.

    When prosecutor Mark Moseley asked Griffis why he lied at first, the officer replied: "I did not want to be labeled a snitch in the building."

    Once the label is attached, he said, fellow officers "would do about anything to get rid of me. They wouldn't render help if help was needed."

    Griffis said he feared for his safety while on the job. He said he has been ostracized and treated differently since he came forth. He has since been transferred to another facility in Gainesville.

    Asked by Moseley whether other inmates had referred to Griffis as a snitch, corrections Sgt. Chris Burns said, "Of course."

    Burns added, however, that he did not feel the same way. He echoed the testimony of other officers who downplayed the snitch label. Moseley, meanwhile, tried to play it up as evidence that the officers were somehow sticking together in defense of one of their own.

    One by one, as Kearns built Lucas' defense, the officers came to the stand to buttress his story.

    Sgt. Rodney McDougal, whose 4 p.m. to midnight shift immediately followed Lucas' on X Wing, testified that Valdes showed no signs of injury to his jaw, never asked for medical care, and showed no pain that evening when he was asked to open his mouth during a pre-shower strip search.

    Corrections officer Jamie Lee Whitaker and medical officer Julie Christie also testified they saw Valdes that night and noticed no injuries.

    Two officers were called to testify they have heard Griffis use racial slurs.

    Officer Thomas E. Coleman said he once heard Griffis refer to Lucas as a "welfare n-----," a term that brought gasps from Lucas' wife and other relatives in the courtroom.

    When Kearns, the public defender, asked Griffis how he felt about black people, the officer responded: "They're everyday people to me." Under questioning from Moseley, the prosecutor, Griffis also said he once helped repair a lawn mower for a "colored lady" who is a friend of Lucas.

    Among the six-member jury are two black people -- a 58-year-old woman who works for the local school district and a 23-year-old man who works as a welder.

    After a tense morning on the stand, Griffis left the courtroom with family members close behind.

    Later Thursday, after the jury was dismissed, the officers who had testified on Lucas' behalf, gathered around him to shake his hand.

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