PANAMA CITY, Fla. - Eight former boot camp workers were acquitted of manslaughter yesterday in the death of a 14-year-old boy who was videotaped being punched and kicked. The altercation sparked outrage and changes in the juvenile system, but it took jurors just 90 minutes to decide it was not a crime.
Anger over the verdict was obvious outside the courtroom, where bystanders screamed "murderer" at former guard Henry Dickens as he described his relief at the verdict.
Martin Lee Anderson died a day after being hit and kicked by Dickens and six other guards as a nurse watched, a 30-minute confrontation that drew protests in the state capital and spelled the end of Florida's system of juvenile boot camps.
"I am truly, truly sorry this happened. Myself, I love kids," said Dickens, 60. He added that Anderson "wasn't beaten. Those techniques were taught to us and used for a purpose."
The defendants testified that they followed the rules at a get-tough facility where young offenders often feigned illness to avoid exercise. Their lawyers said that Anderson died not from rough treatment, but from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder.
The boy's mother, Gina Jones, stormed out of the courtroom after the verdict. "I cannot see my son no more. Everybody see their family members. It's wrong," she screamed.
"You kill a dog, you go to jail," said her lawyer, Benjamin Crump. "You kill a little black boy and nothing happens." He spoke outside court, which is across the street from the now-closed Bay County boot camp.
Anderson's family repeatedly sat through the painful video as it played during testimony. They had long sought a trial, asserting that local officials tried to cover up the case. The conservative Florida Panhandle county is surrounded by military bases, and residents are known for their respect for law and order.
Special prosecutor Mark Ober said in a statement he was "extremely disappointed," but added, "In spite of these verdicts, Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain. This case brought needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."
The defendants would have faced up to 30 years in prison had they been convicted of aggravated manslaughter of child. The jury also decided against convicting them of lesser charges, including child neglect and culpable negligence.
By midafternoon, about 150 people, many from nearby Florida A&M University, were protesting the acquittals outside the state Capitol.
They chanted: "No justice. No peace!"
Several black legislators also expressed outrage. Anderson was black; the guards were black, white, and Asian. The jury was all white.
"Ninety minutes of deliberation for a child's life, a child who we saw beaten to death on videotape over and over again?" asked Senator Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat. "Ninety minutes and not guilty. That's un-American. That is racist, discriminatory, bigotry."
Officials from the Department of Justice in Washington and the US attorney for the Northern District of Florida announced they were reviewing the state's prosecution. Defense attorneys, however, said they considered a federal civil-rights case to be unlikely.
"With a 90-minute verdict after a three-week trial [in the state case], it would be the same result," said Bob Sombathy, a lawyer representing Patrick Garrett, a former guard.
The Legislature agreed to pay Anderson's family $5 million earlier this year to settle civil claims.
Aside from hitting Anderson, the guards dragged him around the military-style camp's exercise yard and forced him to inhale ammonia capsules in what they said was an attempt to revive him. The nurse stood by watching.
Defense lawyers argued that the guards properly handled what they thought was a juvenile offender faking illness to avoid exercising on his first day in the camp. He was brought there for violating probation for stealing his grandmother's car and trespassing at a school.
The defense said Anderson's death was unavoidable because he had undiagnosed sickle cell trait, a usually harmless blood disorder that can hinder blood cells' ability to carry oxygen during physical stress.
Prosecutors said the eight defendants were at fault because they neglected the boy's medical needs after he collapsed while running laps. They said the defendants suffocated Anderson by covering his mouth and forcing him to inhale ammonia.
"You may not hear anything coming out of that video sound-wise, but that video is screaming to you in a loud, clear voice," prosecutor Scott Harmon said in his closing argument. "It is telling you that these defendants killed Martin Lee Anderson."
Anderson died Jan. 6, 2006, when he was taken off life support, a day after the altercation. The case quickly grew and shook up the state's boot camp and law enforcement system amid the boy's family alleging a cover-up.
An initial autopsy by Dr. Charles Siebert, the medical examiner for Bay County, found Anderson died of natural causes from the sickle cell trait.
A second autopsy was ordered, and another doctor concluded that the guards suffocated Anderson through their repeated use of ammonia capsules and by covering his mouth.