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Convictions may prove difficult in boot camp death

Early edition

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published November 29, 2006


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TAMPA — Even as family attorney Ben Crump celebrated the arrest of eight boot camp workers in 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson’s death, he acknowledged the difficult road ahead.

“We know we’re a long way from a conviction,” Crump said.

It’s unusual that so many law enforcement officers were charged in the death of the Panama City teen, legal experts say.

But it will be even more unusual if the officers are convicted.

“Based on my experience, it’s a difficult situation to prosecute a law enforcement officer because a jury will have a sympathetic ear to their situation,” said Gainesville-based State Attorney Bill Cervone.

Cervone’s office handled the case of Frank Valdes . In 2001, five state corrections officers were charged with second-degree murder in the beating death of Valdes, a death row inmate. None were convicted.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law professors agree that successfully prosecuting law officers is a difficult challenge. Even with a videotape, as in the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, jurors vote to acquit.

The reason, experts say, is that many people grow up with a positive image of law officers, wanting to believe the officers’ motives and actions are pure.

“Officers are symbols of something more than just individuals who have committed an offense,” said Professor Kenneth Nunn  of the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. “The jury may reach a verdict based on the value of those symbols to them. Sometimes people use these cases to send messages for support of the police department as a whole.”

Still, compelling evidence can override jurors’ preferential treatment for law officers, according to Stetson University College of Law Professor Robert Batey .

“Jurors are notoriously reluctant to convict law enforcement officers, but on the other hand, virtually all jurors follow the evidence,” he said. “If the evidence proves those officers are guilty, they’ll convict them.”

Another potentially important distinction is that the law officers involved were correctional guards, not police, according to Howard Varinsky , a national trial consultant.

Varinsky helped prosecutors pick juries in the trials of domestic guru Martha Stewart, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and wife killer Scott Peterson. He worked to get former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos acquitted on U.S. fraud and racketeering charges.

People don’t put corrections officers on the same pedestal as police and might be less inclined to side with them, Varinsky said.

But he suggests prosecutors seek a venue change. Bay County is a largely rural, conservative place in Florida’s Panhandle.

A case against prison guards accused of killing an inmate, particularly a black prisoner, might not find a favorable jury pool there, Varinsky said.

“I wouldn’t want it to be in that county because it’s going to be more pro-law-enforcement and law-and-order and conservative there,” he said.

“I have no idea on earth why prosecutors would agree to that. ... You want to get to a big city where there’s a black population or at least more minorities.”

The videotape adds a interesting twist to the case, said Gloria Fletcher . She served as part of a team of attorneys retained by the police union in the Valdes case.

It’s great that so many law enforcement situations are taped now, she said, because videos can bring clarity to emotionally charged situations.

She cautioned that jurors need to understand corrections officers are trained to use forceful tactics. Those tactics may look rough on camera, she said, but may still be necessary.

People who doubt that should try working in a detention center, she said. “They’ve never worked in a correctional facility where one inmate out of control can lead to a riot.”

And though it seems a tape would bring clarity for jurors, that’s not always the case, said Cervone, the state attorney. People will bring their own life experience and perceptions with them as they watch the tape, he said.

“Video is very helpful,” Cervone said. “But it’s in the eyes of the beholder.”

Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 29, 2006, 21:45:14]


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