tampabay.com

A tragedy's lessons

A Times Editorial
Published December 3, 2006


The end of a nine-month investigation into the death of teenager Martin Lee Anderson in a Bay County boot camp has brought much-needed resolution to the young man's family and all Floridians. Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, assigned to the case by Gov. Jeb Bush, filed criminal charges against seven guards and a nurse in connection with the death. At the same time, Ober found that allegations of a widespread conspiracy to cover up the facts in the case have no merit.

Anderson, 14, died on his first day at the boot camp during a forced run. When the frail teen refused to complete the exercise, guards roughed him up and constrained him, then forced him to inhale ammonia after he collapsed. A nurse stood by without intervening, seeking emergency medical care only after Anderson was clearly unresponsive. Those actions, according to a second autopsy done under Ober's direction, are what led to Anderson's death.

"This conduct cannot and will not be tolerated in our society, and none of us are above the law," Ober said, explaining the first-degree felony charges of aggravated manslaughter on a child. Each of the accused faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.

The tragic death has already transformed the way the state deals with juvenile offenders by shutting down all boot camps, an appropriate response that unfortunately did not come soon enough for Anderson. Methods used in the military-style camps for nonviolent teens were always controversial, and recidivism rates were high. Unfortunately, the Legislature still hasn't put enough resources into juvenile rehabilitation to really help troubled children without brutalizing them.

Now the boot camp employees have to answer for their actions in court. A judge and jury will determine whether they committed a crime and, if they did, the appropriate punishment. That is the proper way justice is meted out in our society, not by physical altercations at a boot camp.

Credit should go to Bush for deciding that the death deserved independent and competent review, and to Ober for conducting himself professionally. The length of time spent seeking the truth was clearly justified - although it's good to get some clarity before a new governor takes office next month.

Regardless of the outcome in court, the tragedy is that a young man had to die to open our eyes.