PANAMA CITY, Florida: Seven former Florida boot camp guards and a nurse were acquitted Friday of manslaughter in the death of a 14-year-old black boy who was hit and kicked in a videotaped altercation with the guards.
The video of a limp Martin Lee Anderson being hit and kicked by the guards after he collapsed while exercising drew protests in the state capital and spelled the end of Florida’s system of boot camps for juvenile offenders. Anderson died at a hospital the day after the altercation.
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The defendants, however, said they followed the rules at a get-tough facility where young offenders often feigned illness to avoid exercise, and their attorneys said that Anderson died not from rough treatment, but from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder.
Acquitted guard Henry Dickens, 60, told reporters he was relieved that the case was over.
“I am truly, truly sorry this happened,” he said. Anderson “wasn’t beaten. Those techniques were taught to us and used for a purpose.” As he spoke, bystanders screamed “murderer” at him.
The boy’s mother, Gina Jones, stormed out of the courtroom after the verdict was read. “I cannot see my son no more. Everybody see their family members. It’s wrong,” she said, distraught.
Her lawyer, Benjamin Crump, told reporters outside: “You kill a dog, you go to jail. You kill a little black boy and nothing happens.”
Anderson’s family had long sought a trial, claiming the state tried to cover up the case, and repeatedly sat through the painful video as it played during trial.
The all-white jury took about 90 minutes to decide whether the guards were responsible for the death of Anderson, who was black. The guards, who are white, black and Asian, stood quietly as the judge read the verdicts.
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 could have convicted them of lesser charges, including child neglect and culpable negligence, but did not.
Former guard Henry McFadden later said he was relieved that the case was over: “We were innocent all along. We knew this truth would come out,” he told Court TV.
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 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 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.
The 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 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.