Boot camp trial verdict: Not many agree, but nobody's surprised

By SUE CARLTON, Times Columnist
Published October 13, 2007

PANAMA CITY -- A 14-year-old boy who did not survive his first day in a juvenile boot camp.

Seven guards and a nurse surrounding him, all on video.

Months of investigation.

Serious charges of manslaughter of a child.

Seven long days of trial.

Dozens of witnesses and complex medical testimony.

Hours of hard-fought closing argument.

And 90 minutes for a jury to decide that what happened to Martin Lee Anderson was not a crime. Ninety minutes.

* * *

Afterward, people kept asking me, "Why are you surprised?" -- as if a jury taking barely long enough to pick a foreman and sort through the four-page verdict form before hitting the buzzer made sense.

An all-white, hometown jury, people said. A hometown judge. In small-town Panama City. Why was I surprised?

"I am disappointed," said Pastor Rufus Wood as people drifted into the little pink church after the explosive verdict, to pray or just sit. "But not surprised."

"I've said from day one this is less about black and white than about right and wrong," he said. "This should not happen to anyone's child."

Sorry, angry, wronged, people said. Not surprised.

* * *

I found Reto Williams on her front porch in a white rocking chair, rocking furiously. She did not come to court this week, could not risk a glimpse of her grandson being kneed and struck and forced to inhale ammonia. She watched the verdict on CourtTV.

She wanted the jury to go methodically through the evidence, deciding what each defendant did or didn't do. Less than two hours? Did they make up their minds before they walked into the room?

"No justice for Martin," she said. "No justice for Martin."

* * *

The case was no slam dunk. Some savvy defense lawyers argued that despite the video, the boy died from unforeseen complications of genetic sickle cell trait. They had evidence and experts. The case was complicated and worth serious discussion.

As a sideline, the lawyers played up the angle of hometown boys vs. outsiders assigned the case out of Hillsborough County -- "South Florida," as one lawyer put it.

* * *

CourtTV was on at the Wilson Brothers Barber shop, where one of the owners is the lone black commissioner, and his brother was the town's first black cop. Young men, gray-haired men and little boys awaiting haircuts watched as the judge said "Not guilty" over and over.

"Everyone was saying the same thing: They weren't surprised," said barber Will Williams. "They didn't agree with it, but it is here in Panama City."

* * *

More than one person wondered half-sarcastically how long before the sheriff would hire the guards. This might sound crazy until you saw the Boss Hogg move of the sheriff there in court, sitting alongside the guards' families. Not to mention the former sheriff/former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who resigned after he sent sympathetic e-mails back home about this case while his office was investigating it.

This is, after all, Panama City, where it's been proved in a court of law that anything can happen.

Sue Carlton can be reached at scarlton@sptimes.com.