Sunday, October 14, 2007
Guards, nurse acquitted of manslaughter in boot camp case
October 12, 2007
The Associated Press
PANAMA CITY, Florida: Eight former boot camp workers were acquitted of manslaughter in the death of a 14-year-old boy who was videotaped being punched and kicked. The scene sparked outrage and changes in the Florida juvenile system, but it took jurors just 90 minutes to decide it was not a crime.
Anger over the verdict was obvious outside the courtroom Friday, where bystanders screamed "murderer" at former guard Henry Dickens as he described his relief at the verdict.
Martin Lee Anderson died a day after being hit and kicked by Dickens and six other guards as a nurse watched, a 30-minute confrontation that drew protests in the state capital and spelled the end of Florida's system of juvenile boot camps.
"I am truly, truly sorry this happened. Myself, I love kids," said Dickens, 60. He added that Anderson "wasn't beaten. Those techniques were taught to us and used for a purpose."
The defendants testified that they followed the rules at a get-tough facility where young offenders often feigned illness to avoid exercise. Their attorneys said that Anderson died not from rough treatment, but from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder.
The boy's mother, Gina Jones, stormed out of the courtroom. "I cannot see my son no more. Everybody see their family members. It's wrong," she screamed.
"You kill a dog, you go to jail," said her lawyer, Benjamin Crump. "You kill a little black boy and nothing happens." He spoke outside court, which is across the street from the now-closed Bay County boot camp.
Anderson's family repeatedly sat through the painful video as it played during testimony. They had long sought a trial, claiming local officials tried to cover up the case. The conservative Florida Panhandle county is surrounded by military bases and residents are known for their respect for law and order.
The guards, who are white, black and Asian, stood quietly as the judge read the verdicts. The all-white jury was escorted away from the courthouse and did not comment.
Special prosecutor Mark Ober said in a statement he was "extremely disappointed," but added, "In spite of these verdicts, Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain. This case brought needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."
The defendants would have faced up to 30 years in prison had they been convicted of aggravated manslaughter of child. The jury also decided against convicting them of lesser charges, including child neglect and culpable negligence.
Officials from the Department of Justice in Washington and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida announced they were reviewing the state's prosecution. Defense attorneys, however, said they considered a federal civil-rights case to be unlikely.
Aside from hitting Anderson, the guards dragged him around the military-style camp's exercise yard and forced him to inhale ammonia capsules in what they said was an attempt to revive him. The nurse stood by watching.
Defense attorneys argued that the guards properly handled what they thought was a juvenile offender faking illness to avoid exercising on his first day in the camp. He was brought there for violating probation for stealing his grandmother's car and trespassing at a school.
The defense said Anderson's death was unavoidable because he had undiagnosed sickle cell trait, a usually harmless blood disorder that can hinder blood cells' ability to carry oxygen during physical stress.