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Law puts an end to boot camps

Published Dec. 16, 2006

With the parents of Martin Lee Anderson looking on, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill into law Wednesday banning the aggressive physical tactics used by guards at a north Florida boot camp that an autopsy found caused the death of a teenager.

"Your son won't come back," Bush said, "but you're going to be part of something bigger than yourselves."

The Martin Lee Anderson Act marks the end of Florida's juvenile boot camps, including one in Pinellas County.

They are to be replaced by less confrontational academies called Sheriff's Training and Respect, or STAR, that use more education and after care. The law shifts funding from the boot camps to STAR. Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats says his facility already adheres to many of the changes.

Gina Jones and Robert Anderson of Panama City thanked Bush, who handed them ceremonial bill signing pens and said the law will protect other boys from the same end.

"But I would still like the guards to be accountable for killing my baby," Jones said, holding a picture of her son in a basketball uniform. "He was only 14."

Martin Anderson was sent to the Bay County boot camp in January after violating probation for taking his grandmother's Jeep Cherokee on a joyride. When he collapsed while on a forced run, a half-dozen guards pounced on him, punching, kneeing and generally thrashing the teen. A nurse stood by, doing nothing. At one point, ammonia capsules were stuffed up his nose.

The encounter was caught on the boot camp's security camera and obtained by the news media - turning his death into a national issue that climaxed when 2,000 students marched on the state Capitol along with Anderson's parents and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Anderson died of suffocation because he was forced to inhale ammonia while his mouth was blocked, Dr. Vernard Adams, Hillsborough County's chief medical examiner, said last month. His ruling contrasted sharply with the Bay County medical examiner, Charles Siebert, who said Anderson died of internal bleeding caused by sickle cell trait.

Siebert stands by his autopsy.

The incident is under investigation by Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, whom Bush appointed as a special prosecutor. The governor on Wednesday acknowledged the family's frustration with the length of the inquiry - he said his staff checks every other day - but called for patience. "So long as justice is not denied, if it's slow and methodical that's not necessarily a bad thing," he said.

Bush declined to offer his opinion when asked if the name of the bill suggested something terribly wrong occurred. He has previously questioned the guards' actions. "I have to be cautious about what my personal views are about this," he said. "But it is a criminal investigation, obviously, and that speaks for itself."

Aside from barring the use of ammonia and the physical contact guards had with Anderson, the new program calls for medical exams before youths enter and when they leave. It also calls for better supervision by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Bay County has already closed its boot camp amid the controversy, leaving camps in Martin, Manatee, Pinellas and Polk. Florida started its boot camps in 1992.

Participation in the new program is voluntary, and at least one sheriff, Martin County's Bob Crowder, has questioned whether the funding is adequate. But Bush said it raised daily spending per juvenile by about $20, to $100.

"It's a significant change," he said.