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Florida faces its past and is sorry, but does an apology really matter?

In the nine years since the Florida School for Boys in Marianna closed, USF anthropology researchers unearthed the bodies of more than 50 boys from unmarked graves.
In the nine years since the Florida School for Boys in Marianna closed, USF anthropology researchers unearthed the bodies of more than 50 boys from unmarked graves.
Published May 1, 2017

In the years after they left the reform school, the former wards learned how to bury their shame. They learned to cry themselves to sleep, to sleep through nightmares, to sleep with the lights on. They found outlets for their anger at the end of a thrown fist and relief for their pain at the bottom of a bottle.

When they summoned the guts to tell their stories of being raped and beaten bloody with a leather strap by guards who cashed state paychecks, they wanted one thing.

That apology came this month, as both the Florida House and Senate approved resolutions acknowledging the abuse the men endured in custody of the Florida School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna.

Such acts of governmental contrition used to be unheard of in Florida. But lately, and during this legislative session in particular, lawmakers have seemed more willing to face a past that's often in conflict with the state's glossy image and apologize for historic state-sanctioned injustice. The Florida House this month also passed an apology to the Groveland Boys, four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949, another "shameful chapter in this state's history," the bill says.

Call it: the Sorry State.

But what's an official apology worth?

In recent memory, Florida has formally apologized for the 24-year incarceration of Alan Crotzer, wrongfully convicted of armed robbery and rape; the 22-year incarceration of Wilton Dedge, also exonerated of rape; and for its "shameful" history of slavery, which was supported by the Legislature (There were some 62,000 slaves in Florida, 44 percent of the state population, in 1860).

There is value in a formal apology for victims and their families, said Gilbert King, author of Devil in the Grove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Groveland Boys. Though one of the men, Samuel Shepherd, was shot dead by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall during an alleged escape attempt, the stigma followed the family for decades.

"Just talking to the Shepherd family, this means the world to them because they just wanted to see their name cleared," King said. "For them, the story was not only that they were related to a rapist, but he had tried to kill the sheriff. They stayed there and their name was mud."

For some, the simple acknowledgement that their suffering diminished their potential is rewarding.

"This might be my legacy," said Robert Straley, 70, of Clearwater, a former Florida School for Boys ward who helped orchestrate the campaign to make the abuse public in 2008. "I think it's the only good thing that I've ever done that's not for myself."

But for some, the apologies ring hollow.

Martha Somnitz says her husband's ongoing medical issues — from diabetes to heart attacks — stem from the time he was kicked in the stomach at the school in 1961 by a guard wearing boots pointy enough to crush a cockroach in a corner. Buddy Somnitz spent three days vomiting in solitary confinement and still suffers from the symptoms of pancreatitis.

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"If you step on somebody's toe or you spill milk on somebody, 'I'm sorry' works," said Martha, 68, who has been married to Buddy for 52 years. "But how do you give back people's lives you've destroyed?

"That punishment he got in Marianna goes on daily with him. When he gets up in the morning, he knows he's going to be in pain. Every time he eats a meal, he knows it's going to put him in pain. It wrecked his life."

Legislators quietly discussed adding a compensation package to the Dozier apology, but nothing came to fruition. The state attorney also explored criminal charges against guards accused of abuse, but found no evidence of prosecutable offenses for which the statute of limitations had not expired.

But even without money, there's value in the act of acknowledging state-caused hardship and saying sorry, said the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

"At the end of the day you need to hear the other person say, 'I did this to you. You're not crazy. I'm validating your life and your dignity,' " he said. "The value of that is inestimable. That we should do, and there shouldn't be any question about doing it."

The second step to an apology is changing behavior, he said. But sorry is a good place to start.

"It's symbolic," said Ray Arsenault, a historian and professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who has studied the Civil Rights era. "It's really important for a government entity to declare that they're not there anymore, that they've moved forward."

Perhaps the most notable act of contrition in Florida came in 1994, when the state allocated $2.1 million to surviving victims of the Rosewood massacre, the 1923 racist attack on a black town in North Florida. Legal experts say no similar group had received similar reparations in U.S. history.

While the state's sorry spigot is open, lawmakers still struggle to find a universal system for settlements. The Legislature didn't vote until 1998 on the compensation for two men pardoned in 1975 after a wrongful 1963 murder conviction. And even then, Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts received just $500,000, plus attorney fees. Their case was the first time the state ever gave restitution for a wrongful-death sentence.

And they got money but no formal apology.

Fear of setting a precedent accounts for some of the hesitation to apologize and pay for past injustices. If the state pays the descendants of the Rosewood massacre, which was brought to light by a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, how many other shameful incidents are lurking in the archives?

In cases where there's clear and immediate evidence of wrongdoing, the state is quicker to act. In 2007, Florida agreed to pay $5 million to the family of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who died in a Panhandle boot camp after being kneed and aggressively restrained by guards. The very day enhanced video of the incident confirmed how Anderson was killed, then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced the settlement and apologized. "We will never know," he said, "what you have endured and what you've had to go through and we are so sorry for your loss."

The state reformed the juvenile justice system, doing away with similar boot camps.

Interestingly, it was the video of the death of Anderson, which played over and over in the news, that prompted Robert Straley to remember his experience at the Florida School for Boys and turn to the Internet to see what came of the notorious reform school. He connected with a handful of men whose lives were also changed by their treatment, and they decided to come forward.

"I didn't wake up one day and think, 'I'm going to blow the whistle on Marianna,' " Straley said. "This all happened because of Martin Lee Anderson. I saw something I couldn't forget."

In the nine years since, the school has been closed, bodies of boys have been unearthed from unmarked graves and the number of so-called White House Boys has grown from five to nearly 500. And in its apology, the state has promised to "ensure that the children of Florida are protected from the kind of abuse and violation of fundamental human decency that previously took place at a facility operated by employees of the state of Florida."

And that, said Meyer of the Florida Council of Churches, is the systemic value of an apology.

"The use for the apology is not just for the living victims, but also, one would hope, to point the Legislature and the other organs of government in a direction to correct whatever processes led to the abuse to begin with," Meyer said. "A healthy, mature society is able to say, 'We got this wrong. We realize what the wrong is. We're taking corrective action, and we're doing something about it.'"

Contact Ben Montgomery at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.