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When Greg Newlin walked through the brightly lit, linoleum-floored visiting room of Broward County's Joseph V. Conte detention facility in Pompano Beach on April 24, his green uniform looked baggy and comfortable, like hospital scrubs worn and washed thin. The light-blond stubble on his face suggested that he hadn't shaved in a few days. His eyes darted about nervously, wearily.
After a guard told him he had a visitor in room 10, Newlin strolled toward me and looked through the window. Then he picked up the phone, squinted, and cocked his head to the left as if to say: Who the hell are you?
When I told him I was a reporter, the handsome 28-year-old with a penchant for sports cars and speeding leaned back and looked over his shoulder. No one around. He grinned expectantly and hunched forward. "Have I got one hell of a story for you," he said, his nose inches from the glass. "Negligence, homicide, it's all here."
Newlin and a fellow inmate named Joe Buck both witnessed the untimely death of Charlie Osborne, who was mangled and killed on March 12 while working on a prison work detail on U.S. 27 in Weston. Both men, as well as Osborne's family, claim that the Broward Sheriff's Office was negligent in the 62-year-old man's death and that BSO has tried to conceal details of the incident. Newlin is in jail for a DUI conviction, while Buck is serving time for refusing to submit to a DUI test. Both men spoke to New Times in jailhouse interviews during late April. Neither has a lengthy criminal record or an apparent incentive to lie.
Osborne's death was the first for the sheriff's Inmate Work Unit, which was created more than a decade ago. The unit employs prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses who have fewer than 90 days left to serve and no record of escape. They clean up roads or help build homes for the needy. According to the sheriff's office, the unit saves Broward County taxpayers about $1.2 million per year. Service does not reduce sentences; many inmates volunteer to escape the monotony of jail.
Comparisons to chain gangs are unavoidable. Although participants in the unit are not shackled, they do wear yellow T-shirts that identify them as inmates. Amnesty International has argued that putting prisoners in public view and exposing them to possible insult and publicity constitutes "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." But Amnesty has never commented specifically on Broward's unit, which is similar to dozens of other state and county programs.
To participate in Broward's work program, inmates must meet medical and physical requirements. Osborne apparently met those standards -- even at age 62.
One requirement that Osborne -- and the two witnesses -- apparently didn't meet was the BSO regulation that all inmates wear seat belts when traveling on county business. Buck claims this rule was generally ignored in the Inmate Work Unit. In fact, on the day Osborne died, Buck and Newlin were riding in the bed of a pickup truck.
Osborne, of course, was no angel. From 1997 to 2002, the Fort Lauderdale man was arrested and charged four times in Broward County for possession of cocaine or drug paraphernalia. On January 31, 2002, police found him with a crack pipe, records show, and on August 14 of that year, he was picked up for possession of a small crack rock. Osborne pleaded guilty to the August charge and accepted a ten-month sentence.
"He wasn't a bad guy," Osborne's nephew Jeffrey Taylor contends. "He had a vice."
Citing an ongoing investigation, BSO won't comment on Osborne's case. Based on interviews with Newlin and Buck, however, New Times has put together a description of the events leading to the inmate's death.
Manning a dump truck, Newlin, Osborne, and Buck had worked together for about a month with Deputy Frank Iovino when, on March 12, they were assigned to clear illegally dumped tires from the roadsides of U.S. 27. Jessie Thompson, a civilian who works for the Inmate Work Unit, joined the group that day with his pickup truck.
In the morning, Newlin, Osborne, and Buck began collecting the tires and throwing them onto the bed of Thompson's pickup. Osborne, the oldest and weakest of the group, concentrated on lightweight tire shreds. Each time they cleared an area, the men drove to another dumpsite along the heavily traveled road.
About a quarter-mile north of Griffin Road, at 11:45 a.m., Newlin and Buck were seated in the bed of Thompson's pickup, which was traveling about 35 miles per hour. Both men saw the dump truck speeding up behind them in the passing lane. Newlin heard the truck's engine shift, and then he saw Osborne hanging from the dump truck's passenger-side mirror. His hands clung to the bar connecting the mirror to the truck, his feet dangling a couple of inches above the roadway. As the dump truck passed, Osborne looked at his fellow inmates. Newlin leaned over the side of the pickup bed to take another look.
"I saw everything," Newlin told New Times. "He fell off." Buck, sitting on the passenger side of the truck bed, couldn't see Osborne fall.