PENSACOLA — A looming federal investigation and possible trial are making it difficult for seven juvenile Florida boot camp guards and a nurse acquitted last year of state charges in the death of a 14-year-old boy to move on with their lives, their attorneys said.
The eight left a Panama City courthouse with their jubilant families one year ago, on Oct. 12, 2007, after jurors found them not guilty in the beating death of Martin Lee Anderson. The death and verdict prompted protests, and Florida's juvenile boot camps were abolished. The eight employees were fired from the Bay County Juvenile Boot Camp.
"All of their lives have changed. They are no longer doing what was their first choice in life to do," said Hoot Crawford, attorney for former camp guard Henry Dickens, who is now a hotel security guard. Dickens had wanted to dedicate his life to reforming juvenile offenders but "now he is doing something very different," Crawford said.
The federal inquiry remains open, said Karen Rhew, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tallahassee. She declined to give other details or a time frame for a decision on whether or not there will be a second trial.
Attorneys for the eight said their clients did not want to talk publicly about the verdict because of the federal investigation.
Anderson died Jan. 6, 2006, a day after being hit and kicked by the guards as the nurse watched. He had just been assigned to the camp. He was caught trespassing at a school, which violated his probation, which was imposed after he was convicted of helping his cousins steal their grandmother's car.
A video of the 30-minute altercation showed the seven men punching him and using knee strikes against him, pushing ammonia capsules into his nose and dragging his limp body around the yard. The video also showed the nurse doing nothing to help Anderson or stop the men.
A coroner initially determined Anderson fatally hemorrhaged because he had an undiagnosed sickle cell trait, a condition that can cause red cells to change shape and not carry oxygen when the body is under extreme stress.
A second autopsy, completed when then-Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an independent prosecutor take over the case, determined the guards killed Anderson by depriving him of oxygen when they pushed the ammonia tablets into his nose, covered his mouth and not giving him time to recover his breath.
During the two-week trial, the defense argued employees were using accepted camp tactics and that the sickle cell trait caused Anderson's death. Jurors, who spent days watching and rewatching the tape, agreed and acquitted the eight of all charges. Anderson was black, the jury was all-white. The defendants were black, white and Asian.
The verdict prompted protests two hours away in Tallahassee, where angry college students blocked downtown intersections, calling for a federal investigation. Justice Department officials calmed the students by meeting with protest leaders and assuring them they would investigate.
Messages seeking comment from Anderson's family were not returned by Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented the boy's parents in their lawsuit against the state. The family was awarded $7.4-million to settle lawsuits against the state and Bay County.
Waylon Graham, attorney for lead guard Charles Helms, says he believes no decision on federal charges will come until after the Nov. 4 election. He said Helms and the others are "still all jittery and nervous about what the feds might do."
Robert Sombathy, who represented guard Patrick Garrett at trial, said he hoped and believed that "the investigation is being done above politics and that this doesn't come to do what is the right political thing to do."
The Rev. Rufus Woods, pastor of Love Missionary Baptist Church in the east Panama City neighborhood where Anderson grew up, said time has tempered some of the community's initial outrage, but he and others hope federal charges will come.
"We remain prayerful that we won't be disappointed," he said.
Acquitted, but still under investigation
Seven guards and a nurse with the now-closed Bay County Juvenile Boot Camp were acquitted of state charges related to the 2006 death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson of Panama City. The eight were fired from the camp, and still face a federal investigation.