tampabay.com

All acquitted in boot camp beating trial

REACTION: Verdict brings a protest and a boycott threat.
WHAT'S NEXT: Federal officials promise to investigate.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE and COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writers
Published October 13, 2007


PANAMA CITY -- The quiet lasted just seconds after the judge read the jury's verdicts.

"Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty ..."

Eight times he repeated the phrase. Eight acquittals for the boot camp employees accused in the January 2006 death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

Next came the voices of relief and disbelief, clashing in the courtroom and beyond.

College students filled the streets of Tallahassee with angry protests. A state lawmaker called for an economic boycott of Bay County. Defense attorneys reveled in their victory as federal officials vowed to investigate.

"I can't see my son no more. Everybody sees their family members. It's wrong," cried the boy's mother, Gina Jones, storming from the courtroom after hearing the verdict.

The six-member jury needed only 90 minutes to decide a case that took nearly two years to get to trial.

Anderson died after he collapsed on his first day at the boot camp, a small facility ringed with barbed wire near downtown Panama City.

His death gained national attention upon the release of a video that showed drill instructors striking his arms and kneeing him in the back, even as his body went limp. Parts of the video were shown more than a dozen times during trial.

Its disturbing images prompted the elimination of boot camps statewide and brought into question the Bay County medical examiner's ruling that Anderson had died as a result of sickle cell trait, a blood disorder.

After then-Gov. Jeb Bush called on the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to investigate the case and a second autopsy concluded the boy died of suffocation, prosecutors charged seven drill instructors and the camp's nurse with aggravated manslaughter of a child, a charge with a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.

The acquittals Friday signaled the end of the trial but not of the controversy over the boy's death.

The U.S. Department of Justice immediately issued a statement saying it would review the evidence to determine if Anderson's civil rights had been violated.

Michael Seigel, a University of Florida law professor and former federal prosecutor in Tampa, said government officials likely used the statement as a measure to calm the community.

Within 15 minutes of hearing the verdict, a group of 250 students from Florida A&M University, Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College were organizing a milelong march from FAMU to the steps of the Capitol.

"Tell me what democracy looks like," they chanted. "This is what democracy looks like."

Startavia Anderson, Martin Anderson's 15-year-old sister, stood with the students in the street but collapsed in tears when she tried to make a speech.

'Days of segregation'

Addressing the students from the Capitol steps, state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, called the verdict "a throwback to the days of segregation."

State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, called for an economic boycott of Bay County.

"I would encourage African-Americans and other people who believe in justice to not even go there," he said. "It should be off-limits."

Gov. Charlie Crist, who last spring persuaded legislators to pay Anderson's family $5-million in addition to the $2.4-million settlement received from Bay County, had a measured response. "I know there is disappointment with the verdict, but we must respect the jury's decision. We also must never forget that there is tragedy whenever a child is lost."

He called the federal review "warranted and prudent."

The jury panel -- four women and two men -- returned just before noon Friday.

After the verdict, Anderson's mother stopped at the top of the courthouse steps to make a brief statement to dozens of reporters and camera crews.

"How the hell they gonna let them walk away?" Jones asked.

The teen's father, Robert Anderson, stood beside her. He looked down at the ground as the family's attorney, Ben Crump, spoke to the gathered crowd.

"You kill a dog, you go to jail," Crump said. "You kill a little black boy, nothing happens."

At this, Jones, in red stilettos, marched across the street to a car, parked outside the former boot camp property, barely stopping as people hugged her and cameras clicked. She passed by demonstrators. One held a homemade sign: "If we don't stand, who will?"

As she slipped into a car to leave, someone yelled: "Keep your head up, Gina. We understand. We know."

Prosecutors, too, left quickly and had a police escort out of Panama City.

"I am extremely disappointed in these verdicts," Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said in a statement. "However, I have tremendous respect for the jury's decision. My staff has worked ethically, diligently and professionally on this most difficult case.

"In spite of these verdicts, Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain," he said. "This case brought needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."

The defense team lingered, mingling with reporters and onlookers and savoring the moment. Most stopped by Court TV's white tent to go on national television.

"We're on cloud nine, and there's nothing sweeter than having eight not guilty verdicts," said Waylon Graham, defense attorney for guard Charles Helms Jr.

With his colorful language and theatrical flourishes, Graham played a prominent role in the defense. Throughout the trial, he maintained that political pressure from Tallahassee was the reason for the trial.

"I'd like to say to Charlie Crist: Put this in your pipe and smoke it,'" Graham said.

He said a local legislator plans to introduce a bill to pay the legal costs of the defendants.

Asked how he planned to spend the evening, Graham said he was going to have a party and "drink lots of alcohol and smoke a lot of big cigars."

His CourtTV interview had a similar tone, and he appeared to amuse Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet, who had removed his robe and sat in the courtroom and watched. The judge chuckled and smiled as Graham spoke.

Another person smiling wide Friday was Dr. Charles Siebert, Bay County medical examiner. Siebert, who conducted the first autopsy on the teen and testified for the defense, said he felt vindicated by the verdict. "I haven't slept for a year and a half," he said.

Boot camp drill instructor Henry Dickens, who is black and attended a segregated school before joining the military, disputed claims that the case hinged on race.

"This is the year 2007," he said. "All this black and white stuff should be over with. ... If you ask me what I am, I'm an American."

'Reasonably foreseeable'

To prove their case, prosecutors needed to show that the defendants "directly and proximately" caused the teen's death by neglecting him through culpable negligence. They also had to prove that the teen's death was "reasonably foreseeable," meaning that death was a possible result of the boot camp employees' actions.

"It was a very difficult case for the prosecution in an area that is not sympathetic to the Martin Andersons of the world," St. Petersburg defense attorney Darryl Rouson said. "There's no question in my mind that when you continue to get all-white juries to look at these situations that justice may not always be served."

Defense attorney John Fitzgibbons called the case "an impossible task" for prosecutors and "a defense lawyer's dream."

He said the defendants who testified came across as credible, normal people just doing their jobs, and defense attorneys effectively conveyed the idea that the case pitted their small community against everyone else.

"The political meddling by Gov. Bush was a very strong factor for a jury to consider," Fitzgibbons said. "There's no doubt that politics intruded, and that is the most dangerous thing in the justice system when politicians become involved. Juries don't like that."

The quietest place around on Friday was just down the road at Redwood Avenue's cemetery, where Martin Lee Anderson is buried.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Rebecca Catalanello, Kevin Graham and Alex Leary contributed to this report.