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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Examiner clings to job after boot camp
He says all the facts about a teen's death will come out soon.
By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published September 18, 2007
Bay County medical examiner Dr. Charles Siebert speaks during a news conference in Panama City, Fla., about the death of Martin Lee Anderson, 14, at a state boot camp for delinquents earlier this year. Siebert said that Anderson, who was beaten by guards, died from internal bleeding caused by a blood disorder and not from injuries he may have suffered while being restrained.
[Ken Helle | Times]
Gina Jones holds a photo of her son, Martin Lee Anderson, taken just before he entered the boot camp facility.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, seated, hands Gina Jones, the mother of Martin Lee Anderson, a pen after signing the wrongful death compensation bill in Tallahassee, Fla.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. - A year and a half ago, Charles Siebert was condemned as the medical examiner with the gall to rule that a boy who collapsed at a boot camp died of natural causes.
His conclusion -- that Martin Lee Anderson died of sickle cell trait, a disease that mostly affects African-Americans -- stood in stark contrast to what millions saw on TV. A surveillance camera captured guards hitting and kneeing the 14-year-old.
Protesters flooded the Capitol. They accused the doctor of racism and a coverup. Seven guards and a nurse are scheduled to go on trial here next month, each facing up to 30 years in prison. Siebert lost his job.
Now Bay County, the center of the controversy, has become Charles Siebert's sanctuary, a safe haven, though probably temporary, from the legion of critics who called for his head. Fired by the state Medical Examiners Commission this summer, Siebert has been given his job back by Bay County State Attorney Steve Meadows.
"I will not sacrifice Charles Siebert on the altar of political expedience or correctness," Meadows said in June.
"There have been so many conflicting stories from the experts about what happened. We are all willing and anxious to let the courts try this case, not politicians or the public," said County Commissioner George Gainer.
Siebert, 45, who is appealing his dismissal, says he has backers in more vital corners: the medical community. Experts have come to his defense, calling the sickle cell trait finding credible.
"I'm actually looking forward to the trial," Siebert said in an interview at his office on a recent afternoon. "It's going to be the first time that all the truth comes out."
A second rescue
Meadows has thrown a lifeline to another political figure disgraced by the January 2006 boot camp death: former Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner Guy Tunnell. Tunnell, a Panama City native and former Bay County sheriff, is working as an investigator for the State Attorney's Office at $72,000 a year.
"I felt it would be a waste to have that much talent just walk out the door all because he made one mistake that he has apologized for. When is enough enough?" Meadows said.
Tunnell got in trouble when reporters discovered he was trading e-mails with Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen about the boot camp investigation -- an inquiry Tunnell's agency was leading. Then, in April 2006, Tunnell made snide remarks about the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who were expected to come to Tallahassee for a protest.
Meadows is unabashed by his hiring moves, which have gone largely unnoticed outside Bay County.
"I hope it says that we don't just make knee-jerk decisions based on press accounts or protests, but rather that we make our decisions on the facts and the best judgment we have regarding the abilities of the people who have come into question," he said.
"Birds of a feather flock together," scoffed state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, an early and vocal critic of Siebert. "That's what makes people cynical about government."
"It's a horrible thing to watch, you've got to admit that," Siebert says of the videotape at the center of the case. "But if you break it down, nothing they did to him killed him."
Siebert's findings were so widely scorned that the special prosecutor ordered a second autopsy.
Hillsborough Medical Examiner Vernard Adams concluded that Anderson was suffocated, partly by the guards' hands and ammonia they pushed in his face. Backed with that report, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober charged the guards and a nurse, who stood around while Anderson was being manhandled, with aggravated manslaughter on a child.
That was November. In the months since, Siebert's confidence has grown from the support he has received.
Dr. E. Randy Eichner, a sickle cell expert and retired professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma, prepared a report calling Siebert's autopsy "scientific, explanatory and credible." In a court deposition he says Adams' scenario about ammonia causing vocal chord spasms is "fantasy. It is just as unscientific as you could possibly get."
Adams, who declined comment for this story, stood by his report in a deposition in June. He said it was possible Anderson was suffering from the beginning of sickle cell trait and perhaps it made him die sooner, but that "there's enough suffocation going on to entirely account for the clinical events that followed." Other experts have concurred with his findings, according to statements in the case file.
One powerful critic
BurnieThompson, a conservative radio host in Panama City, has sharply criticized the news media outside Bay County and Gov. Charlie Crist for being dismissive of the medical examiner.
"Significant information has been omitted in this case," Thompson said in an interview, "and that's egregious."
Nevertheless, in June, the Medical Examiners' Commission voted to fire Siebert, saying that by diminishing the guards' role he was dishonest in his autopsy.
But Meadows quickly appointed Siebert as the interim medical examiner. The prosecutor pointed to the commission's own survey of 45 law enforcement officials, funeral directors, prosecutors and public defenders, all but two of whom expressed support.
"Despite what amounts to reckless character assassination by some media outlets and, regrettably, even some members of our government," Meadows said, "I believe Dr. Siebert to be a competent and thorough medical examiner not beholden to anyone or any cause."
Meadows now chairs the committee that will pick a permanent medical examiner. Only two people have applied, a man from Arizona and Charles Siebert.
"I've been saying all along that I'm right, and now I have the support locally," Siebert said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm fighting as hard as I am."
No matter how many people may support him, though, Siebert is facing an unwavering critic: Crist, who has the final say in picking medical examiners.
"I don't think he's qualified," Crist said last week, adding that he wants to look into ways to have Siebert removed from the interim post, which pays $200,000. Told of the experts who have backed Siebert, Crist says it doesn't matter. "I've lost confidence in him."
Siebert all but concedes defeat. "I don't see a long-term future here anymore. They took science out of the equation and it became a political game and that's a shame."