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The Guard Who Never Owned Up to His Crime

by Kay Lee

I am so frustrated by numerous identically fruitless attempts to stop prison guard violence, especially in Florida, but of course I, like many others, will continue to seek justice.

A federal case should be made out of the latest travesty. The recent acquittal of Timothy “Big Red” Thornton and two other guards involved in the killing of Prisoner of Florida, Frank Valdes, has angered a lot of people across the nation.

Frank Valdes was pulled from his cell at the Florida State Prison at Starke in July 1999 dead, with 22 broken ribs and fractures of his sternum, vertebrae, nose and jaw, along with numerous internal injuries. There were boot prints on his face, neck, abdomen and back. Nine guards were originally charged in the crime. At first they claimed Valdes “did it to himself”, but by the time they reached court over two years later, they had turned themselves into humanitarians who “might have broken his ribs trying to revive him”.

This was a case that should have been easy to win–and might have been won–if the trial had been moved completely out of the North Florida area (aka “Redneck Riviera”) with its proliferation of small prison towns.

The finding of innocence was supposedly based on the premise that, since nine officers were involved, the court had to determine the one ‘killing blow’ and who struck it–or all would go free. How in the world are we to ever know which was ‘the killing blow’ and who delivered it? Does the medical examiner know? Do the guards even know? Of course not, but somehow this detail becomes our impediment to justice.

How can a jury containing a guard deciding a case against prison guards be considered impartial?

Why was the testimony of the remorseful prison guard not heard by the jury?

Why did Thornton’s high-priced attorney (whom the Guard’s Union hired) feel it necessary to use the popular guard catch-phrase, most cunningly disguised in a symbolic gesture that spoke louder than words, “All Inmates Are Liars”?

I’ll tell you why: Because that’s all guards have ever needed to say to clear themselves of their own perjuries and other ‘improprieties’ in Florida.

The presiding judge addressed both the court and the jury prior to closing arguments and acknowledged that he realized that just about everyone present was either related to, was friends with, or saw each other at the local stores. Did he honestly believe that conversations regarding the trial never took place up to this point or even before the jury was selected?

Once the trial was staged in the guard’s back yard, acquittals were predictable.

I have letters from a number of prisoners who speak of the horrors the Florida State Prison system’s errant guards, including Thornton and Griffis, were inflicting even before the Valdes killing.

Here’s a little backgrounder on “Big Red” Thornton, one of the guards present at the murder, but somehow deemed legally innocent by Florida justice. It shows the kind of people the DOC employees and protects. [Prison captain twice arrested on the outside.]

“During his 14 years as a corrections officer, Thornton’s use of force to restrain inmates more than 30 times was always deemed justified. His personnel file shows the 6-foot, 230-pound guard has never faced disciplinary action.

But while working as a bouncer at Bobby’s Hideaway in Waldo in 1996, Thornton was arrested on a charge of aggravated battery. Alachua County sheriff’s deputies said he tried to break up an argument between his brother and 24-year-old Scott Petty. He allegedly took Petty outside and kept hitting him.

Petty received two broken ribs, a fractured eye socket and a broken nose. The charge was dropped when Petty decided not to press the matter.

In 1986, a year after Thornton became a prison guard, Starke police charged him with burglary and battery. They said he and a companion broke into a Starke motel and assaulted another man. Thornton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge and the burglary charged was dropped.”

Now Thornton and another three of the involved guards (one from an earlier trial) are free men–because no one in a position of power in Florida cared enough to win this case. Families and prisoners and advocates are greatly and rightly worried about the clear and foreboding message this court sent to the prisoners and guards in Florida: If you want to kill, just make sure you are wearing a DOC uniform and your prey is a prisoner!

Unfortunately, I guess no one has thought of filing federal conspiracy and murder charges against the guards. Because of dual jurisdiction, from what I understand, federal law can apply (like with Terry Nichols) and 18 USC which makes murder associated with torture a federal crime, This was torture by any standard, and NO DOUBLE JEOPARDY attaches. Under federal law, these guards can be tried away from a kangaroo court of relatives, supporters and friends.

The threats and abuses continue in the prisons throughout Florida, only now guards invoke the name ‘Valdes’ as a mutually understood threat to frightened prisoners. Ever since the Valdes murder, guards all over Florida have been using his death to threaten prisoners with the same fate.

The lives of other prisoners are at great risk: look for more prisoners kicking themselves in the face with their own boots, breaking 22 ribs by themselves or ‘committing suicide’ in a variety of unlikely ways.

All I can say is, SEND IN THE FEDS!

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CounterPunch Magazine

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