Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tense Moments After Boot Camp Acquittal

October 13, 2007
By Melissa Nelson

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Tensions ran high after eight former boot camp workers were acquitted of manslaughter in the death of a 14-year-old inmate who was videotaped being punched and kicked.

The case sparked outrage and spelled the end of Florida's system of juvenile boot camps, but it took a jury just 90 minutes Friday to decide that the death of Martin Lee Anderson was not a crime.

Anger over the verdict was obvious outside the courtroom, where bystanders screamed "murderer" at former guard Henry Dickens as he described his relief at the verdict.

"I am truly, truly sorry this happened. Myself, I love kids," said Dickens, 60. He said Anderson "wasn't beaten. Those techniques were taught to us and used for a purpose."

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.

The defendants testified 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 said.

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.

"You kill a dog, you go to jail," said Gina Jones' lawyer, Benjamin Crump, outside court. "You kill a little black boy and nothing happens."

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."

"In spite of these verdicts, Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain," the statement read. "This case brought needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."

The defendants faced up to 30 years in prison had they been convicted of aggravated manslaughter of a 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.

"The Department of Justice has yet another opportunity, unfortunately, to demonstrate to America's minority populations that law enforcement officials acting outside the laws of this nation will be held accountable, that the misdeeds of a few rogue officers won't be allowed to tarnish the good work of the vast majority and that any guilty officers' conduct will be strongly scrutinized and met with remedial action rather than a wink and a nod," said NAACP Interim President & CEO Dennis Courtland Hayes.

"With a 90-minute verdict after a three-week trial (in the state case), it would be the same result," said attorney Bob Sombathy, who represents ex-guard Patrick Garrett.

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.

Prosecutors said the eight defendants neglected the boy's medical needs after he collapsed while running laps. They said the defendants suffocated Anderson by covering his mouth and forcing him to inhale ammonia.

Anderson died Jan. 6, 2006, when he was taken off life support, a day after the altercation. The case quickly grew and shook up the state's boot camp and law enforcement system amid the boy's family alleging a cover-up.

An initial autopsy by Dr. Charles Siebert, the medical examiner for Bay County, found Anderson died of natural causes from sickle cell trait. A second autopsy was ordered and another doctor concluded that the guards suffocated Anderson through their repeated use of ammonia capsules and by covering his mouth.

Anderson's death led to the resignation of Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief Guy Tunnell, who established the camp when he was Bay County sheriff.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush had been a strong supporter of the juvenile boot camps, but after Anderson's death he backed the Legislature's move to shut down the system and put more money into a less militaristic program.

The Legislature agreed to pay Anderson's family $5 million earlier this year to settle civil claims.