September, 22 2017

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Florida Boot Camp Trial Begins

The trial of seven boot camp guards and a nurse charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of a 14-year-old inmate began Wednesday with three hours of opening statements by the prosecutor and seven of the eight defense attorneys.

History of the Case at Bay County Boot Camp

Martin Lee Anderson died at the Bay County Boot Camp in January 2006 after the officers were videotaped for nearly 30 minutes hitting and kicking him in an effort to motivate him to exercise.

Anderson was sent to the boot camp after he violated his probation, stealing his grandmother's car.

The Bay County medical examiner ruled the boy died of sickle cell trait, a genetic condition not usually considered fatal. A second autopsy performed by an outside medical examiner, however, concluded Anderson died of asphyxiation. Attorneys on both sides made it clear the conflicting autopsy conclusions will be the central question in the trial.

Debating the Facts

If Martin died of sickle cell trait, there's nothing the officers and nurse could have or should have done, the defense argued. If he was asphyxiated by their hands, they should all be held accountable, the prosecution insisted.

Prosecutor Pam Bondi relied on the video in her opening statement, showing clips that even two of the defense attorneys acknowledged were ``hard to look at.''

Anderson's Last Moments

''The last conscious moments of Martin Lee Anderson's life were spent with his mouth covered by hands and ammonia being applied to his nose,'' Bondi said, showing the jury parts of the 30-minute video.

Members of Anderson's family in the front of the audience broke down when the video came up on three large-screen television monitors.

Bondi showed several more clips of the video, pointing out how the officers hit and kicked Martin and repeatedly held his mouth closed. Approximately 23 minutes elapsed from the time Martin first collapsed during a 1.5-mile run to the time officers called 911, she said.

Bondi, of the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office, is one of three prosecutors assigned to the case after the local state attorney's office asked the governor's office to appoint an outside prosecutor.

The Other Side of the Story

The defense led with attorney Bob Sombathy, who told the jury the video doesn't show the whole story.

``The evidence will show this case started on Jan. 15, 1991 -- that's when Martin Lee Anderson was born with sickle cell trait.''

''It's usually a benign trait,'' he said. ``The evidence will show that over 100 military recruits have died from it. Fifteen to 20 college athletes have died from it. And these college athletes and military recruits had lived normal lives.''

Sombathy said he would bring in an Oklahoma expert who has watched the video and found certain parts show Martin suffered from sickle cell trait. The expert will testify about other deaths caused by the trait, he said.

Sombathy discounted the asphyxiation conclusion of the Tampa medical examiner.

''There's never been a case when an ammonia capsule has killed anyone in the history of the world,'' Sombathy said.

The other defense attorneys raised other key issues: that the officers were all using techniques they had employed many times before to control unruly inmates and that they and the nurse had all dealt with many kids in the past who refused to follow orders to run around a track.

The stubbornest kids were often the ones who claimed they physically couldn't run anymore, they said.

The defense attorneys each painted the defendants as hardworking individuals who worked at the boot camp because they wanted to help troubled teens. Several of the drill instructors were in the military.

Meanwhile, two of the attorneys were quick to note that the children in the boot camp were all delinquents.

''None of the offenders were there for singing too loud in church,'' said attorney Hoot Crawford.

Protests and National Opinion About the Boot Camp Death

Outside the courthouse, the NAACP held a small protest to decry the fact that there are no blacks on the jury and that prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed not to present any use-of-force experts.

Anderson's death made national news and deeply divided this Panhandle community. Though two of the drill instructors are black, the authorities' handling of the case has drawn cries of racism.

Martin's mother had hoped the trial would be moved to another jurisdiction because she felt the officers and nurse would get a lot of sympathy from the jurors, some of whom said they knew one or more of the defendants.

The case is set to last through the end of next week.

If convicted all eight face up to 30 years in prison.

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