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New autopsy rules out natural causes in death

More tests are needed to determine a cause of death, but the second autopsy's initial results cheer the teen's family.

Published March 14, 2006

[Times art: Don Morris]
To learn whether Martin Lee Anderson died of natural causes, or from blows inflicted by guards, doctors will examine his body for the second time on Monday. Here is a look at how autopsies are done, what they found in the first autopsy, and what they may look for next.
Go to interactive

TAMPA - The Hillsborough County medical examiner has ruled out sickle cell trait and other natural causes in the death of a teenager beaten at a North Florida boot camp, a spokeswoman for State Attorney Mark Ober said Tuesday.

Dr. Vernard Adams headed a team of five pathologists Monday during a 12-hour, second autopsy of Martin Lee Anderson. Bay County Medical Examiner Charles F. Siebert Jr. ruled in February that the 14-year-old died not from the beating but from internal bleeding caused by sickle cell trait, a rare medical complication. Siebert observed Monday's autopsy in Tampa.

Martin's parents disputed Siebert's report from the beginning. Adams' initial autopsy findings buoyed their spirits.

"I'm just glad that the truth finally came out," said the teen's mother, Gina Jones, who called for the arrest of those involved in the beating, which was captured on a security camera videotape.

But the specific cause of the boy's death remains undetermined. Adams must perform more tests before he completes his report, which could take at least two weeks, said Ober's spokeswoman, Pam Bondi.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Ober at the request of the Panama City prosecutor. The teen's body was exhumed Friday and transported to Tampa as part of Ober's investigation.

Meanwhile, a former New York City chief medical examiner asked by the youth's family to observe the second autopsy was the only doctor involved in Monday's procedure to speak publicly about it.

"We all agree he did not die from sickle trait," said Dr. Michael Baden, the New York pathologist, at a news conference Tuesday. "Sickle trait does not harm you. Martin did not die of natural causes."

After three days of facing television cameras and questions from reporters in Tampa, the boy's family returned to Panama City, where he was reburied at a cemetery there Tuesday.

"Maybe my son can get some rest now," Robert Anderson said.

"I'm glad that I did make the right decision to pull my baby out of the ground," the boy's mother said. "Now the truth is out. I want the guards and the nurse to be arrested. It's time now."

Ober has said that it will take months to complete his investigation, but Baden already has drawn his own conclusion.

"My opinion is, he died because of what you see in the videotape," said Baden, calling the youth "almost a rag doll" as guards beat him. "Even if correction officers do the wrong thing, it's very difficult to get past a grand jury, or any jury, when somebody does bad things while on duty."

Baden defended Siebert, saying the Bay County medical examiner simply made a mistake in the first autopsy.

"It's a mistake that can be made without bias," said Baden, who added that the team Monday had a more thorough medical history of the teen than Siebert did.

He said Siebert was in the room as Adams and his team worked Monday. Siebert didn't object to any of the doctors' findings or defend his report, Baden said.

A spokeswoman in Siebert's office said he would not comment on the second autopsy until the Hillsborough medical examiner completes the report. Baden said Siebert plans to consider changing his conclusions in the case.

During the news conference Tuesday, Baden noted that as a medical examiner in New York state for 30 years, he reviewed the the deaths of 6,000 prison inmates, and "not one died of sickle trait."

But Baden's own record shows he is not unfamiliar with sickle cell trait as a potential cause of death.

In 1992, Baden performed a second autopsy on an upstate New York man who died shortly after a police beating. He said "beyond a reasonable degree of medical certainty" that the man died from an "unrecognized acute sickle cell crisis, caused by hypoxia (a lack of oxygen reaching the tissues), the result of physical exertion and contributed to by the effects of cocaine and alcohol use," according to the Buffalo News. Baden was asked to do the autopsy by the New York state Correction Medical Review Board and the Erie County district attorney.

When an amateur boxer died after collapsing in the ring during a fight in New York in 1979, Baden, then New York City medical examiner, attributed the 25-year-old's death to cardiomegaly, an enlarged, damaged heart, and sickle cell trait. Both were listed on the death certificate.

"During the exertion, anxiety and emotion of his first fight, his bad heart failed and his red blood cells began to sickle," Baden wrote in a New York Times article. He also wrote that low oxygen levels in the blood can trigger sickling of red blood cells in persons with sickle cell trait, which then causes medical problems.

Martin Anderson's mother has said her son complained of breathing problems while running laps at the boot camp right before guards beat him.

Though Baden was representing the family, he asked for no payment other than reimbursement of his $300 plane ticket to Florida, said Benjamin Crump, the family's attorney.

Looking deeper at why the youth had trouble breathing should be a focal point of pathologists performing the second autopsy, said Dr. Joseph H. Davis, who worked for 40 years as Miami's medical examiner before retiring.

"Is there something wrong with this lad other than sickle cell that may have caused him to stop running and created the situation where he was beaten?" Davis said.

He read the Bay County medical examiner's autopsy report at the request of the St. Petersburg Times. Davis said that Siebert noted irregularities in the lungs that were consistent with asthma, but Siebert did not elaborate in his report.

If the boy's blood cells had begun to sickle, Siebert would have had trouble drawing blood during the autopsy and should have also noted that in his report, Davis said. He didn't.

"If Vern Adams says that they cannot exclude trauma in the death, then I believe it would be correct that trauma played a role in the death," Davis said. "The fact that he died so fast seems to indicate that there's something else wrong with him."

Davis said he thinks a combination of whatever pre-existing medical problem the boy may have had along with the beating likely caused his death. One without the other would not have killed him, said Davis.

Adams must still test more than 100 microscopic tissue samples to find out for sure.

"We know it's going to be a long journey to get justice," Crump said. "The family is committed, and we are going to stay the course."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or

[Last modified March 14, 2006, 22:07:02]

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