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Youth Dies in Florida Boot Camp; Cause of Death Questioned

by David M. Reutter

For the fifth time in five years a juvenile has died in a Florida boot camp. A videotape of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson being counseled at a Bay County boot camp facility in Panama City shows guards abusing and battering him while he lays limp on the ground. A medical examiners autopsy, however, initially concluded that Martin died of complications from sickle cell trait. A second autopsy revealed he was suffocated to death.

Martin entered the boot camp, which is operated by the Bay County Sheriffs Office under contract with Floridas Department of Juvenile Justice, on January 5, 2006. He was sentenced to the one-year camp for grand theft after taking his grandmothers Jeep Cherokee from a church parking lot while she was at Sunday services. Martin and some friends later crashed the Jeep into a ditch. Despite the grandmothers plea to not press charges, state prosecutors went forward with the prosecution anyway, a decision that would later prove to be fatal.

The videotape of Martins death begins with the induction of Martin and several other youths into the boot camp on January 5. The video shows the youths standing against a wooden fence while drill instructors scream at them. Martin is first seen being held on the ground by two guards with his hands spread out. One of the guards has his knee in Martins back.

A few minutes later Martin stands up and tries to run around the camps track, but he stumbles. Four guards rush him, pinning him to the wooden fence with his arms spread out like a crucifix. Once again he was held to the ground with a knee in the back.

Despite complaints of having trouble breathing, Martin was again forced to run. He was clearly unsteady. This prompted a guard to put his forearm against Martins neck in a chokehold. On his next attempt to comply with their orders to run, Martin stumbles and falls. He is like a rag doll & they are holding him up. The video shows Martin being pushed, punched, kneed, dragged and apparently choked by at least seven guards while he remained limp and, eventually, became unresponsive. The brutal beating went on for 30-40 minutes.

The video, which was not released until February 17, 2006, shows a nurse, Kristin Anne Schmidt, standing by as Martin was clearly in distress, occasionally checking him. The only medical care that was rendered was ammonia capsules pushed into Martins nose. By the time Martin was finally taken to a hospital after boot camp officials called 911, it was too late. He died the next day. They picked on him so much until they murdered my baby &, said a sobbing Gina Jones, Martins mother. State Rep. Gus Barreiro was quoted in The Miami Herald as saying the videotape showed the most heinous treatment of a human being he had ever seen. It was obvious to me the kid was unconscious, and they were still abusing him. People will be outraged when they see this tape, and they should be outraged.

After Martin was hospitalized, the Bay County Sheriffs office issued a press release stating that he had become ill. The press release headline read, Boot Camp Offender Receives Medical Care. It was later learned that five guards involved in Martins death had been accused in 63 other use-of-force incidents against juvenile offenders, including knee strikes, hammer-fist blows and painful pressure point restraints, according to reports filed in 2004-2005 with the Florida Dept. of Juvenile Justice.

A furor erupted after the Bay County medical examiner, Charles Siebert, ruled that Martin had died of natural causes due to complications from sickle cell anemia, a genetic blood disorder that affects mostly people of African descent. This is a sad day in the state of Florida, said state Sen. Frederica Wilson. Just the idea, the arrogance, the audacity for someone to think that Florida, the nation, would believe that this young man died from an undiagnosed trait of sickle cell.

Siebert stated that the exertion of Martins physical exercise triggered a chain reaction that ultimately led him to bleed to death. A number of experts, however, wanted to know why Martin had bled profusely in an area behind his kidneys. It was also learned that Siebert had allowed his medical license to lapse at the time he issued the autopsy report. State lawmakers successfully petitioned the medical examiners board to investigate, and on March 10, 2006, with the permission of his family, Martins body was exhumed for a new autopsy.

The second autopsy was performed by Tampas chief medical examiner, Dr. Vernard Adams. In his report, released on May 5, Adams found that Martin Andersons death was caused by suffocation due to actions of the guards at the boot camp. Adams said the suffocation resulted in part by hands being placed over Martins mouth, as well as the forced inhalation of ammonia fumes.

Guy Tunnell, Commissioner of the states Dept. of Law Enforcement, was responsible for an investigation into Martins death. Instead, Tunnell resigned on April 20, 2006 after he reportedly sent chummy e-mails to the Bay County Sheriff, who was one of the officials being investigated. (Tunnell, when he served as Bay Countys Sheriff in 1994, had created the boot camp program in which Martin later died). The next day, on April 21, approximately 1,500 students accompanied by civil rights leaders marched in Tallahassee in protest over the circumstances of Martins death.

A review of Floridas juvenile five boot camps indicated the programs had serious problems. Sixty-two percent of the camp participants were rearrested after their release, raising questions about their effectiveness. Are we really being effective in what were trying to do? stated Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats. Somewhere, theres a breakdown in the system here.

PLN has reported in the past that paramilitary boot camps have a low success rate if lowered recidivism is their goal. It filled my heart with hate, thats it, said former boot camper Sean Matthew Lewen. Nor are such programs safe. Previous deaths in Floridas Dept. of Juvenile Justice include the June 9, 2003 death of Omar Paisley, 17, who died of a ruptured appendix after three agonizing days without treatment (two nurses were charged with murder in connection with his death); the May 31, 2003 death of Daniel Matthews, 17, who died after a fight with another juvenile offender; and the October 30, 2001 death of Shawn Smith, 13, who committed suicide. Another juvenile, Willie Lawrence Durden III, 17, died of natural causes at the Cypress Creek Juvenile facility on Oct. 14, 2005. But boot camps are more than a Florida problem. Over the last three years, 30 youths have died in boot camps nationwide.

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen decided to close their boot camp in light of Martins death, and the former guards at the facility are now seeking jobs at the CCA-operated Bay County Jail where they will fit right in with that facilitys culture of neglect and abuse. [see the accompanying article in this issue of PLN, CCA Florida Jail Operations].

And on May 31, 2006, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed into law the Martin Lee Anderson Act, which eliminates the states military-style boot camps and replaces them with Sheriffs Training and Respect facilities that will provide treatment, emphasize self-esteem and after-care, and ban physical discipline by guards. I would like to thank the governor and all the lawmakers for the support and what happened today, but I would still like the guards to be held accountable for killing my baby, said Gina Jones.

Florida State Attorney Mark Ober continues to investigate Martins death, though to date no one has been charged, or even reprimanded. I want justice; thats what I want, said Robert Anderson, Martins father. But I cant really get it, because my son is gone. The videotape of Martins death can be viewed at:

Sources: Miami Herald; Associated Press; St. Petersburg Times.

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