Guarded optimism

You can hear the frustration in Peter Siegel's voice. It's almost as if the prison-reform attorney has been kicked in the gut.

In a way, he was. On Feb. 15, a Brad-ford County jury of five men and one woman acquitted three former prison guards charged in the brutal 1999 killing of death-row inmate Frank Valdes. It was the district attorney's second failed trial in Valdes' death (in 2000, another jury acquitted a former guard of battery), and it's unclear whether prosecutors will pursue the charges against the five defendants who have yet to come to trial.

"[Guards] can get away with anything," Siegel says when asked about the verdict's ramifications.

Prison-reform advocates knew the case would be an uphill climb after the trial judge refused to move it out of Bradford County, a swath of north Florida dominated by the prison industry. The three state prisons nearby are the region's biggest employer -- and those who don't work in them know someone who does.

After three months of jury selection and four weeks of testimony, during which a number of inmates testified that the defendants were among the guards who had kicked and pummeled Valdes to death, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict in just over three hours.

There is a silver lining for prison reformers and Valdes' family, albeit slight: Originally, the guards claimed that Valdes' injuries -- 22 broken bones, a boot print in his back and swollen testicles -- had been self-inflicted, but jurors rejected that theory. Some told newspapers after the verdict that they knew Valdes was murdered; they just didn't know by whom.

Defense attorneys, after their self-inflicted argument went bust, claimed it wasn't their clients who killed Valdes but the other five guards scheduled for a separate trial later this year. Siegel and other reform advocates expect the next slate of defendants to reverse that defense.

Meanwhile, Guy Rubin, a south Florida attorney, has filed two federal civil-rights lawsuits seeking civil damages against the guards (one in Valdes' name, another for beaten inmate Willie Matthews). All eight guards, the former prison warden and the inspector named in the suits must stand trial together, making it tougher to shift blame among one another. Moreover, the trial would be in Jacksonville, which though conservative, offers advocates a better shot at the justice they seek.

"At the end of the day, what we're hoping to accomplish is a wake-up call for the prison system," Rubin says. "The institution we're running is broken and needs to be fixed -- and not with a Band-Aid."

The Justice Department might agree. This week, federal investigators announced they would begin probing Valdes' death. As with Rubin's civil lawsuit, a criminal civil-rights charge would allow the government to prosecute all of the guards together, and not in Starke.

Valdes' death -- or more accurately, the media hubbub surrounding it -- has prompted the Department of Corrections to aim video cameras at death-row officials. But officials continue stoutly to deny a pattern of abuse in the prison system. Inmates, they say, are liars.

The eight accused guards were all fired. After his acquittal, however, Charles Brown told the St. Petersburg Times he'd consider becoming a guard again, if the DOC offered.

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