Florida Prisons

Charlotte County grand juror: We knew guards were guilty of killing inmate

Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker

A local grand juror, among the group that decided in June not to charge any Charlotte Correctional Institution officers in the homicide of inmate Matthew Walker, feels she’s been silent too long.

“It has really bothered me all this time,” said Louise Salcedo. “We all knew they were guilty and should have been prosecuted, but we were talked out of indicting them. This man was beaten to death.”

For Charlotte County grand juries, like the one that heard testimony for the Walker case, the state attorney’s office for the 20th Judicial Circuit is in charge of examining witnesses, presenting potential evidence and giving legal advice to grand jurors. There were three legal advisers from the state attorney’s office assigned to the Walker case on behalf of Stephen Russell, the circuit’s State Attorney.

“They told us the chances of convictions were very slim,” Salcedo said. “I find it baffling ... very confusing.”

Russell, saying he couldn’t comment on a specific case, said, “I appoint legal advisers I am confident will be fair, balanced, straightforward and make it very clear the grand jury makes the final decision.”

Multiple state agencies examined Walker’s death, which was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. The prisoner got into an altercation with correctional officers after he refused to tidy up his cell during a late-night cell check in April 2014 (the check was later found to be a policy violation).

Walker’s larynx was crushed, and he took several blows to the head, neck and torso. Investigators determined five of the dozen corrections workers involved could have potentially faced criminal charges.

Salcedo said the legal advisers told the grand jury a conviction was unlikely because it is difficult to determine which guards delivered which strikes to the inmate. The incident was not caught on video because the cameras in that part of the prison weren’t working, and much physical evidence was tainted. So, a conviction would have had to rely heavily on testimony of uninvolved witnesses, who were prisoners themselves.

Tom Flynn was a defense lawyer for more than three decades in St. Louis before retiring to Punta Gorda a few years ago. He represented clients that were the subject of grand jury proceedings, and said the grand jury goes along with the prosecutors’ recommendations “99 percent of the time.”

“We had a couple cases similar to” the Walker case, Flynn said. “When prosecutors don’t want to prosecute someone, the grand jury is a perfect way to take the heat off of them. They hide behind a grand jury to get a decision they want, but don’t get the blame.”

Flynn said he doesn’t always understand why prosecutors don’t push for charges.

“If you go to trial and lose, at least you tried,” Flynn said. “I think [Walker] deserved that.”

Others agree.

A community-driven candlelight vigil was held outside the Charlotte Correctional Institution on Wednesday. The ceremony remembered Walker’s death and aimed to let state officials know people want justice for the homicide and others who have died at the prison.

The names of grand jurors are not released. The Sun was able to reach the grand jury foreman in the Walker case only because his signature is legible on the grand jury’s report of findings, or presentment — a rare public record available in the case. Contacted by the Sun, the foreman said he didn’t want to talk without first checking with the state attorney’s office. He later declined comment, citing the oath that swore him to secrecy.

Salcedo swore to the same oath, but the 85-year-old Port Charlotte woman has been second-guessing the decision she helped the grand jury make, and says others might be, too.

Salcedo risked a felony charge by contacting the Sun after no other grand jurors came forward to talk about what happened for those eight days they met this summer.

“After reading everything in the paper, I feel guilty that I maybe could have done something better,” Salcedo said.

The grand juror said she believes all the guards present during the fatal beating “were guilty of watching this and not stopping this.”

“You couldn’t get anybody to admit anything [on the witness stand], which makes sense because they all cover each other’s butts,” Salcedo said.