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Jury selection begins in boot camp death trial

Chanting demonstrators carried photographs of a dead 14-year-old as jury selection began Monday for the manslaughter trial of seven juvenile boot camp guards and a nurse who are charged in his death.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chanting demonstrators carried photographs of a dead 14-year-old as jury selection began Monday for the manslaughter trial of seven juvenile boot camp guards and a nurse who are charged in his death.

Martin Lee Anderson died in January 2006 after being taken to a hospital from the now-closed Bay County Juvenile Boot Camp.

He had been sent to the camp for a probation violation and became lethargic during a physical fitness test shortly after arriving. An exercise yard videotape shows seven guards repeatedly hitting the boy with their fists and knees. The camp nurse is accused of watching but doing nothing during most of the 30-minute encounter.

Anderson was black; white and black guards hit him.

By early afternoon, 80 potential jurors had answered initial courtroom questions and 45 had been approved for additional screening; nearly all said they had seen at least part of the video on television. They were not automatically dismissed if they had seen the video; some were dismissed for knowing the guards or Anderson’s family.

Anderson’s parents declined to answer questions from The Associated Press during a brief break in questioning.

Impartial jury may be hard to find
More than 1,400 Bay County residents were summoned for jury selection, being held in a makeshift courtroom in a civic center to accommodate the crowd. That is one of every 90 adults in the Florida Panhandle county.

The large number is needed because the case has gotten so much media attention locally. If an impartial panel can’t be found, the trial will be moved to another Florida county.

Defense attorney Waylon Graham said he expected to have a jury pool by Tuesday night.

“You are talking about something that has been on TV constantly and on the radio constantly and the governor has meddled in this thing almost from the beginning, but I don’t think it will get moved, said Graham, who represents Charles Helms Jr., the ranking camp guard on duty the day Anderson entered the camp.

Prosecutors have declined to answer questions about the case.

More than 400 people were expected to be screened Monday, and Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet told attorneys he expected the process to continue past 8 p.m.

About 20 demonstrators stood outside the civic center and carried large posters showing Anderson and bearing slogans such as “Justice 4 Martin.”

Their chants of “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” could be heard in the second-floor courtroom.

Conflict in autopsies
The original autopsy on Anderson, conducted by the Bay County medical examiner, attributed his death to natural complications of sickle cell trait, a genetic blood disorder.

After an outcry from Anderson’s family and the public, his body was exhumed and a second autopsy by another doctor found he had suffocated.

The defense will lean heavily on the first autopsy, saying it shows the guards and nurses were not to blame.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober to prosecute the case, citing a potential conflict of interest for local prosecutors. His team will say that the second autopsy combined with the video shows that Anderson was killed.

The Florida Legislature dismantled the state’s military-style youth boot camps after Anderson’s death. The case also led to the resignation of the chief of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The Legislature agreed to pay Anderson’s family $5 million earlier this year to settle civil claims in the case.

Several potential jurors questioned the settlement.

“I just think it was out of sequence as to what was supposed to happen,” said one potential juror, an older white man. “Suits going this way and that, people paying out money, demanding this or that or that before anyone was adjudicated guilty.”