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Trayvon Martin and Martin Anderson: Can tragedy create a chance for change?

Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.
Published Aug. 24, 2013

An unarmed black teenager is dead. What happened to him sparks outrage, makes headlines and raises questions about race.

Charges are filed. A jury says not guilty. And afterward comes much talk about whether that teenager's death will change anything at all.

Sound familiar? Because before Trayvon Martin, there was Martin Lee Anderson and Florida's infamous boot camp case.

Of course there are differences. As everyone knows by now in the story that has crossed the globe, Trayvon Martin was 17 and walking home from a convenience store in Sanford last year when he had the bad luck to be spotted by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.

Back in 2006, Anderson had been sent to a juvenile boot camp in Panama City after he violated his probation on a grand theft charge of stealing his grandmother's car. He was 14.

In the first hours of his first day at boot camp, Anderson collapsed after a run. A video from that day shows guards surrounding him, punching and kneeing him in what were later described as standard use-of-force "hammer strikes," "knee strikes" and "pain compliance techniques." A nurse watched. Anderson was forced to inhale ammonia. He died the next day at the hospital.

As with the shooting in Sanford, many of us were outraged. Politicians horrified by what they saw on that video vowed change. Others defended the status quo.

I asked Hillsborough Chief Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore, one of the prosecutors on the boot camp case, if he saw similarities. Of course, he said, "in the immediate public perception and the passionate feelings that supporters on both sides had."

"They were both polarizing cases," he said. "And they were far more complex than they looked at first glance."

The guards, along with a nurse, were charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. The defense pointed to sickle cell trait.

And the jury said not guilty.

In the case in which Zimmerman followed Martin and later shot him dead after he said Martin attacked him, the jury had Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law to consider. According to the instructions the jury heard, Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and could use deadly force if he felt it necessary to avoid death or serious injury. Even if he started the chain of events in the first place.

And the jury said not guilty.

So the question in the aftermath is: What, if anything, changes now?

Anderson's death brought about one big change: Florida shut down its juvenile boot camps.

Now there is talk of scrutiny for the unevenly-applied stand your ground law that turns justifiable self defense into shoot-first-ask-questions-later legislation.

Count Sinacore and plenty of other law enforcement types among those who believe it's a law in need of adjustment.

Benjamin Crump, the Tallahassee civil rights lawyer who represented the Martin family — and who also represented the family in the boot camp case — said this last month in Washington:

"We believe there should be an amendment to the stand your ground law that simply says you cannot be the initial aggressor. You cannot start the confrontation. You cannot pick the fight, and then shoot the person, put your hands in the air and say, 'I was standing my ground.' "

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It sounds familiar, this call for thoughtful change in the wake of a death that didn't have to happen.

But then, so do the equally strong voices out there saying this is how we've run things around here for a long time now — and it's just fine with us.