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Report: Trauma didn't kill teen

A medical examiner says a sickle cell trait killed Martin Anderson, not a boot camp beating. Family members and lawmakers dispute the report.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE and ALEX LEARY
Published February 17, 2006


[AP photo]
Bay County's medical examiner, Dr. Charles Siebert, second from right, speaks at a news conference Thursday. Siebert's report on the death of Martin Anderson is at odds with allegations made by his family and lawmakers.
Martin Anderson's body showed little trauma.

Fate of boot camps
Should the state continue sending youth offenders to boot camps?
No, they should be shut down
Yes, but the state should change its policy on use of force
The state should look at other alternatives for juveniles

PANAMA CITY, Fla. - The teenager restrained by guards in a boot camp died not from physical trauma but from internal bleeding caused by sickle cell trait, a blood disorder he probably didn't know he had, a medical examiner said Thursday.

Exercise and stress in the boot camp yard could have triggered a "cascade of events" that led to the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, district medical examiner Charles F. Siebert Jr. said.

While the youth's mother accused guards of killing her son, and a videotape allegedly shows several guards beating him, the body showed no signs of trauma, except for abrasions behind his ears and small cuts on his lips, Siebert said.

The teen's parents have said that their son was swollen and bleeding in the hospital and that his organs were too badly damaged to be donated. Robert Anderson said his son's nose looked broken.

Siebert said the organs were not damaged and the nose was not broken. If the body seemed swollen it was because fluids were inserted as a medical team tried to save his life, he said. Someone with sickle cell will suffer massive bleeding from openings in the body, he said.

In preparing his report, Siebert viewed the videotape from the Bay County boot camp.

Today, the public may be able do the same. After repeated requests and a lawsuit from two media outlets, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced it will release the tape this morning.

As the autopsy report was released, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will investigate the incident, a development some called surprising because the state has not completed its investigation.

Gregory Miller, U.S. attorney for North Florida, said the inquiry will determine whether the teenager's civil rights were violated through "excessive use of force or a deliberate indifference to a serious medical need." The FBI will assist in the inquiry.

The teenager was sent to the Panama City boot camp because he violated probation in a grand theft case. He collapsed on Jan. 5, his first day, while doing physical exercises. He died the next day at a Pensacola hospital.

Gina Jones, the boy's mother, said she intends to sue. The medical examiner's report did not change the family's sentiments.

"The damage to his internal organs wasn't caused from this alleged sickle cell trait," said Benjamin Crump, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents the family. "He (the medical examiner) doesn't want to address the issue of internal bleeding. . . . What caused this internal bleeding?"

State Rep. Gus Barreiro, a boot camp critic and one of two lawmakers who saw the video last week, also said Siebert's conclusions were baffling. "Either he didn't see the same tape I did or he's trying to cover this up," the Miami Beach Republican said.

"His response is questionable at best," Barreiro said. "This young man could have died from internal bleeding, but what caused it? I think it was the amount of strain and abuse he was put under."

Sickle cell leads to problems that can make it difficult for the blood to clot, the medical examiner said. It can be triggered by exercise, altitude or stress. Sickle cell would not be easily detected in a routine physical. It requires a blood test specifically designed to look for the disorder.

It appears that neither the teenager nor boot camp officials knew the boy had the disorder, the medical examiner said.

A "Health Status Checklist" is completed on all youths. It includes a checklist of health problems, such as diabetes and seizures, and gives a space to check "yes" or "no."

Sickle cell is one of the problems listed. The teenager's form was checked "no," Siebert said, though it wasn't clear if the youth filled out the form alone or whether a parent was present.

His family says the boy was athletic, active and an avid basketball player. They question how something so serious could have gone undetected for so long.

Siebert said some people live normal lives with sickle cell trait.

Also, the FDLE has turned up evidence that the teen has experienced breathing problems before when exercising, he said.

The family's attorney declined to answer any additional questions until after he and family members view the videotape.

The NAACP and other groups called for the federal investigation this week.

Some critics have said the FDLE is not qualified to conduct the investigation since its top official, Guy Tunnell, started the Bay County boot camp when he was sheriff there.

"We'll probably get to the bottom of this now," said state Sen. Tony Hill, chairman of the Legislature's black caucus.

FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said the agency would conduct itself as it does in all other investigations.

The Justice Department is sometimes reticent to discuss investigations but guidelines allow for disclosure of cases with widespread public interest, said state Rep. Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and the other lawmaker to see the tape last week.

"You really can't divine anything from the move," Gelber said.

But another former federal prosecutor, Tampa lawyer Stephen Crawford, said the Justice Department's involvement was a surprising development.

"They generally step back and let the local authorities do their job" first, Crawford said. "The fact that the feds have deemed it appropriate to step in this early tells me there is something dysfunctional with local and state law enforcement."

The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has conducted investigations of juvenile detention centers in other states, including Maryland and Georgia, and found substantial violations, including beatings.

Gov. Jeb Bush called the federal involvement "appropriate."

"There was a death and there's been a lot of attention given to it," he said.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who called for a federal study of boot camps, issued a statement Thursday encouraging the Department of Justice.

"This investigation should be the beginning of a serious, aggressive, and comprehensive effort by federal agencies and the Congress to make sure that children are totally safe when they are sent - either by the state or by their parents - to residential programs."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.

ON THE WEB

Video footage of what some have described as the brutal beating of Martin Lee Anderson was to be released by investigators this morning. Visit sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 17, 2006, 02:38:48]


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