Teen's Boot Camp Death Provokes Outrage

Shocking video prompts teen's mother to right what she felt was wrong.

February 18, 2009, 11:59 AM

Dec. 26, 2007— -- Less than three months ago, in October, a jury's decision to acquit a group of juvenile-detention boot camp guards of manslaughter charges rocked an already enraged community.

A year and a half before, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died while under the supervision of guards at a Panama City, Fla., facility for juvenile offenders. Soon after the teen's death, a surveillance video of the incident surfaced. The series of soundless, grainy images shocked the nation and outraged many in the northern Florida community where Anderson and his family lived.

The guards, shown struggling with Anderson on the tape, said he had collapsed during a mandatory 1-mile run less than a day after he was admitted to the camp. The video shows the guards forcibly picking Anderson up off the ground and hitting him. There are times when Anderson seems to be on his feet, but then his legs crumple beneath him and he pitches forward into the dirt.

In the last few minutes of the video, Anderson collapses, his body splayed on the ground. Paramedics run into the video frame, place him on a gurney and wheel him away. Anderson fell into a coma and died early the next morning.

Grief-stricken, Anderson's parents, Gina Jones and Robert Anderson, demanded to know what had happened to their son, who had been sent to the boot camp on charges that he took his grandmother's car for a joy ride after violating probation.

But before the surveillance tape was made public, Jones and Robert Anderson had only the word of the local coroner, who ruled that their son had died of natural causes.

When word got out there was a video, everything changed. Media outlets filed lawsuits to get access to the material, and Anderson's parents held a news conference, demanding the release of the images. In mid-February 2006, the damning videotape exploded on television and the Internet, setting off a firestorm.

Medical experts began questioning the local coroner's ruling. The Bay County Sheriff's Office ordered the boot camp closed. And a special prosecutor was appointed to oversee the case.

"It's time for them to get charged for murdering my baby in a boot camp," said Anderson's mother in a press conference.

A month later, Anderson's body was exhumed. A second autopsy was conducted by a different medical examiner, with prominent forensic pathologist Michael Baden attending. The results, released in May 2006, said that Anderson had died of suffocation when the guards blocked his airways and held ammonia capsules under his nose, supposedly in an effort to revive Anderson after he'd fainted.

Anderson's family, backed by the NAACP and other African-American community leaders, accused local authorities of a massive cover-up. In the aftermath of the controversy the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's commissioner resigned.

Six months later, the seven guards and one nurse, who was shown on the boot camp surveillance tape, were each charged with one count of aggravated manslaughter.

As the defense and prosecution prepared their cases, there was one issue on which both sides agreed: without that videotape, they wouldn't be gearing up for a trial.

In early 2007, ranking boot camp guard Charles Helms, a former Army drill sergeant, talked to "2020" about the charges pending against him. In his first interview since the incident, Helms said it was fairly common for new attendees at the boot camp to fake illness when required to exercise. Helms said Anderson was one of them, resisting orders and talking back.

"He said something to the effect that 'I'm not going to do this anymore,' or 'I'll do this tomorrow," Helms said.

Helms also claimed it was standard procedure for guards at the boot camp to use military techniques to subdue a resistant teen, such as punching a boy in the arm to unclench his fist, or kneeing him in the thigh to make him fall to the ground.

In Anderson's case, Helms said, the guards broke ammonia capsules under Anderson's nose and covered his mouth so he would inhale the fumes. The goal was to test if Anderson was feigning illness. But Helms said he soon realized the boy was in trouble.

"When I applied the second ammonia capsule and got no response at all, that shocked me," Martin Anderson said. "Because, normally with an ammonia capsule, you get almost an immediate response. ... I mean it hit me hard right then. ... I said 'lay him down.'"

Calling for Justice

But Anderson's family and their supporters said that the surveillance video told an entirely different story: one of outright abuse, negligence and possibly intent to harm.

Anderson's mother still hasn't seen the full video, but she said she's seen enough.

"You could … hardly see Martin in the video with all the guards around him in a circle just taking turns, just punching," Jones said.

"You wouldn't treat a dog like that," said Banjamin Crump, the Anderson family's lawyer. "This was a human being, this was a child. Fourteen years old. What could he have done to even justify them kicking him, and slamming him to the ground, picking him up?"

These sentiments were echoed in the community as well. Student-led protests were staged. Jeb Bush, who was governor at the time, closed all of Florida's boot camps in response to the uproar. The Anderson family filed wrongful-death lawsuits and received a total of $7.4 million from state and county governments in the spring of 2007.

In October, the trial began. Many blacks were angry but not surprised to learn that an all-white jury had been picked. Some argued the trial should be moved away from Panama City.

Guard Charles Helms, his deputies and a nurse were charged with aggravated manslaughter. But members of the jury also had the option of convicting the defendants on lesser charges of simple manslaughter, child neglect or culpable negligence.

The prosecution relied on the surveillance footage to demonstrate how the guards "brutalized" Anderson. They said the defendants administered excessive amounts of ammonia in an attempt to revive him, causing him to suffocate. They claimed that the guards persisted because of a desire for "control and domination" instead of concern for the teen's well-being.

Defense attorneys argued that the guards were following procedure in restraining the teenager. In testimony, the guards described how Anderson's vital signs gave no indication of distress, even right up until he was taken away in an ambulance. And they claimed that Anderson died because of "complications of sickle cell trait." Sickle cell anemia is a genetic blood disease that limits the capacity of the red blood cells to carry oxygen.

On Oct. 12, after just 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned the verdict for all the defendants: not guilty on all charges.

The reaction was swift and thunderous.

"You kill a dog, you go to jail," said Crump. "You kill a little black boy, and nothing happens."

Jones stormed out of the courtroom, telling reporters, "I cannot see my son no more. Everybody see their family members. It's wrong."

Protesters took the streets again, this time marching on the capitol building in Tallahassee.

"The tone of the protests after the verdict came down was the same tone before the verdict," said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida NAACP. "And that is one of anger, one of outrage, one of determination that we had to keep pressing until justice came down like it should."

Many believe the race of the defendants and victim played a key role in how this case was decided.

"As much as we'd like to believe that the Jim Crow era is over," said Nweze. "I can assure you … that racism is alive and well, that it still runs rampant in this country."

Ten days after the verdict was rendered, the Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation, which is now pending. Jones said it's important to pursue justice on behalf of her son.

"I'm tired, but I have to keep on fighting for Martin because he did not deserve to leave the world the way he did," said Jones.

But nothing can change the fact that Jones has to face another holiday without her son.

"This is Christmas time now … where's Martin at? Gone. Dead. In his grave," said Jones. "Wishing him a Merry Christmas even though he can't talk to us. ... That will be our Christmas."

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