Law mires down victims seeking justice

Published December 2, 2006

It took just one day at a Bay County juvenile boot camp for 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson to lose his life after a vicious beating.

It took nearly a year for the state to charge eight people with aggravated manslaughter on a child in connection with his death.

It will take years for his family to fully get justice - if ever.

That's because the system in place in Florida makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for victims to be compensated for acts of official negligence.

The first phase of the Anderson case ended Tuesday with the filing of felony charges against seven guards and a nurse, all employees of the Bay County Sheriff's Office, that could send them to state prison for up to 30 years.

While the employees stand trial in Anderson's death, the boy's family is pushing ahead with a $40-million civil lawsuit.

But even if the guards are found guilty, and the family wins its lawsuit, justice still won't be final.

Anderson's family will have to petition the Legislature to pass what's known as a claims bill to force the Sheriff's Office to pay damages.

A state law known as sovereign immunity caps a government agency's liability at $200,000. Anything over and above that must be approved by the Legislature.

In recent years, lawmakers have refused to pass most claims bills, citing their frustration with a system that they see as arbitrary and dominated by pressure from lobbyists.

Some lawmakers consider it unseemly for personal injury lawyers to parade their maimed clients before legislative committees. The lawyers say it's the only way they can get justice for victims.

A rare exception was the case of Wilton Dedge, whose $2-million claim was approved a year ago largely because of the insistence of one man, then-House Speaker Allan Bense.

Calls for widespread reform of the claims bill process have been ignored. Pending claims from all over the state continue to mount.

The 2007 session is three months away, and already dozens of claims bills have been filed.

One of them was filed on behalf of the parents of Brooke Ingoldsby, the 8-year-old Pinellas County girl who was struck and killed in 2005 when a substitute school bus driver dropped her off on the wrong side of the road.

The Pinellas school district has agreed to pay $1.2-million in the case. Brooke's parents are seeking $1.3-million more through the Legislature.

Another claim was filed on behalf of Alan Crotzer, 45, of St. Petersburg, who spent 24 years in prison for rape, only to be exonerated earlier this year by DNA evidence.

His lawyer is seeking $1.25-million for his wrongful imprisonment.

The length of time it took for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober to bring charges in the Anderson case was a source of anguish to Martin Lee Anderson's mother, Gina Jones.

But she could only express relief at the filing of charges Tuesday. "I'm finally getting justice for my baby," she said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at 850 224-7263 or bousquet@sptimes.com.