Martin Lee Anderson’s death sparked enormous change in the juvenile justice system in the State of Florida. He was just 14 years old when he entered a Bay County juvenile boot camp on January 5, 2006.
Within hours of entering the juvenile facility, he was restrained, kneed and hit by guards. He died the next day. Guards claimed that Anderson was uncooperative and refused to participate in exercises that were part of the camp’s intake processes. But the altercation was caught on videotape and it sparked an investigation into Anderson’s untimely death.
The first autopsy found that he died from sickle cell anemia, a usually benign blood disorder. But just a day after the medical examiner found Anderson died from natural causes, the videotape of the incident was released. A week later, the boot camp was closed and all employees involved in the investigation were placed on administrative leave.
A few weeks later, Anderson’s body was exhumed for a second autopsy that concluded his death was not due to natural causes, rather, he died from suffocation. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the guards’ hands blocked the boy’s mouth and the forced inhalation of ammonia fumes caused his vocal chords to spasm. Guards said they used ammonia capsules five times on Anderson in order to get him to cooperate.
A special prosecutor was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to look into allegations of misconduct because the state attorney for Bay County asked to be removed from the case citing close ties to law enforcement.
On November 28, 2006, nearly eleven months after Anderson’s death, the special prosecutor announced that 7 ex-guards and a nurse have been charged with aggravated manslaughter in connection with the boy’s death. The accused face up to 30 years in prison. The manslaughter charge is considered aggravated because the victim was under 18 years old.
Anderson’s death is a tragedy, but something good has come of it. Governor Bush signed into legislation, with Anderson’s parents watching, the Martin Lee Anderson Act which replaces boot camps with juvenile facilities that focus more on education and counseling than discipline and punishment.
The accused will have to answer criminal charges as well as defend themselves in a 40 million dollar civil lawsuit filed by Anderson’s parents on their son’s behalf.
In a civilized society based on the rule of law, we live in a delicate balance between obeying those whose job it is to enforce the laws, and policing the police to make certain they do not abuse their special positions of authority.
We see this same scenario unfold time and time again. There is a tension between the lawful use of force to do one’s job and the abuse of force to intimidate and coerce. Presently, we are watching this story unfold in connection with the shooting death of a New York groom, shot 51 times by undercover police officers at 4:00 a.m. in Queens on the morning of his wedding. We are waiting to learn whether police abused their power or whether their actions were lawful. Just a few years ago, we watched the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the L.A.P.D. which raised serious questions of police brutality.
Rather than become cynical about law enforcement, and treat it with disrespect, we must continue to learn from both officers and citizens how to police properly. We need the police to serve and protect us, and we need to train and treat our police in a way that best supports them in their life threatening duties.
As sad as it is that Martin Lee Anderson died at 14 years old, it looks as if Florida is taking his death seriously. Anderson’s case is being used to improve the juvenile justice system, and to charge those whose role it is to protect the youth they are supposed to guard.