PANAMA CITY, Fla. - Eight former boot camp workers were acquitted of manslaughter Friday in the death of a 14-year-old boy who was videotaped being punched and kicked. The scene sparked outrage and changes in the 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, 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 lawyers 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, distraught.
"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 a child. The jury also decided against convicting them of lesser charges, including child neglect and culpable negligence.
Chuck Hobbs II, a lawyer for the Florida chapter of the NAACP, said his group was considering asking the Justice Department to bring federal civil-rights charges against the guards. Defence lawyers called such a case unlikely.
"With a 90-minute verdict after a three-week trial (in the state case), it would be the same result," said lawyer 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 lawyers 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 defence 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 by neglecting his medical needs after he collapsed while running laps. They said the defendants suffocated Anderson by covering his mouth and forcing him to inhale ammonia.
"You may not hear anything coming out of that video sound-wise, but that video is screaming to you in a loud, clear voice, it is telling you that these defendants killed Martin Lee Anderson," prosecutor Scott Harmon said in his closing argument.
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.
"I am feeling a little vindicated. People got to see a lot more than what's been publicized in the media," said Siebert, who was widely criticized for his autopsy. He said he was going to celebrate with some of the guards.
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-governor 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.
Bush appointed Mark Ober, state attorney for Hillsborough County, as special prosecutor in the case. Bush also scolded Tunnell for exchanging e-mails with current Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen, in which he criticized those who questioned the effectiveness of the boot camp concept. He also made light of the protesters in the state capital.
The legislature agreed to pay Anderson's family $5 million earlier this year to settle civil claims.
HAVE YOU BEEN|
TO THE NEWSROOM?