tampabay.com

Family gets $2.4M in boot camp death

Now Martin Lee Anderson's parents wait to see if the state Legislature will give them $5-million more.

By ALEX LEARY and JUSTIN GEORGE
Published March 28, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The parents of a teenager who died after a violent encounter with guards at a juvenile boot camp reached a $2.4-million settlement Tuesday with the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

With Gov. Charlie Crist's backing, they are seeking $5-million more from the state.

"We were certain the jury would have awarded a $40-million verdict," said the family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump. "The question is: How long would this matter have gone on? It's just been grueling for the family."

The accord only partially resolves the case, which caused sweeping changes in the state's juvenile justice system, the closure of all boot camps and the downfall of one of Florida's top law enforcement officials.

A criminal case against the seven guards accused of beating 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, and against the nurse who watched, is not affected by the settlement. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The family is hoping an additional $5-million settlement will be approved by the legislature this year. That amount would resolve the family's claim against the Department of Juvenile Justice, which contracted with local sheriffs to run the boot camps. Gov. Crist has urged lawmakers to approve the award.

Crump said the teen's parents, Robert Anderson and Gina Jones of Panama City, decided to accept $2.4-million on the assumption the Legislature will bring the total amount to $7.425 million.

"Hopefully we can bring an end to the whole thing," Crump said.

But the Legislature may not act as swiftly as the family and Crist would like. Some lawmakers, including House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, say as tragic as the case is, there are other tragedies that deserve consideration. And in general the Legislature has been hesitant to approve claims bills.

The Legislature gets involved because under law, only it has authority to pay claims against the state over $200,000. The settlement with the Bay County Sheriff's Office is different because the money comes from the Florida Sheriff's Self-Insurance Fund, which is not state money.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office did not admit any liability or wrongdoing in the settlement. The agreement also states it shall not be used as substantive evidence in the criminal case.

Anderson was sent to the boot camp in Panama City in January 2006 after violating probation by taking his grandmother's sport utility vehicle on a joyride.

He fell during a forced 1.5-mile run, according to investigative documents, and guards tried to get him up. He allegedly resisted, and they subdued him with blows from their hands and knees. Ammonia capsules were put under his nose.

His body limp, Anderson was taken to a hospital. He died the following day. A Bay County medical examiner attributed the death to a blood disorder known as sickle cell trait, but other experts have discounted that.

The seven guards and the nurse face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of aggravated manslaughter of a child.

The next court hearing has been scheduled for June, said Pam Bondi of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, which was picked last year to handle the case after the Bay County prosecutor asked to be recused.

Close ties between Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen and Guy Tunnell, then head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, produced more criticism. Tunnell and McKeithen traded e-mails about boot camps, even though the FDLE was investigating the death. Eventually, Tunnell resigned.

While civil and criminal proceedings are separate matters, attorneys watching the case from afar say the settlement and the proposed $5-million could influence jury selection - if the criminal case ever reaches trial.

"Obviously, the state's admitting guilt," Clearwater attorney George Tragos said. "But there's an old saying: Companies don't commit crimes, people do."

Boot camps all over Florida, including in Bay County, closed after Anderson died, strengthening the defense's argument that the camp, not the guards, was to blame, he said.

"It's a cold day in hell when they prosecute law enforcement for that kind of thing," Tragos said.