MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida jury acquitted seven former guards and a nurse of manslaughter on Friday in the death of a 14-year-old boy whose beating by the guards at a juvenile boot camp was caught on videotape.
The death of Martin Lee Anderson, who was sent to the detention camp for joyriding in his grandmother’s car, sparked widespread outrage when the tape was made public, leading to accusations of a cover-up against then Gov. Jeb Bush, protests at the state capitol and closure of Florida’s boot camps.
Florida agreed this year to pay $5 million to Anderson’s family.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Anderson’s parents, called the not guilty verdict issued by a jury in Panama City, Florida, “a tough pill to swallow.”
“You kill a dog, you go to jail. You kill a little black boy, nothing happens,” he said, in an apparent reference to NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges in August and faces up to five years in prison.
The former boot camp staff members had faced up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Anderson collapsed during an exercise drill on January 5, 2006, a few hours after he arrived at the detention center for young offenders in the Florida Panhandle. He died at a hospital the next day.
A medical examiner initially ruled that Anderson died of natural causes — internal bleeding from sickle cell trait, a previously undiagnosed blood disorder that occurs in one in 12 African-Americans and does not usually cause health problems.
The finding angered the boy’s parents, who launched a lawsuit after publication of the videotape. The video showed the boy was kicked and hit repeatedly by guards.
The parents initially accused Gov. Jeb Bush, the younger brother of U.S. President George W. Bush, of a cover-up. The governor later condemned the actions of the guards and appointed a special prosecutor who brought the manslaughter charges in November.
A second autopsy found the boy died of suffocation because his mouth was blocked and he was forced to inhale ammonia smelling salts, which resulted in a blockage of his airway. The medical examiner said he died as a result of the “actions of the guards.”
The U.S. Justice Department said it was looking into the case and would “take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes.”
After the verdict, about 300 protesters, mainly students, marched to the capitol in Tallahassee, chanting “no justice, no peace.” They were met by a handful of state lawmakers who said they were incredulous at the ruling.
“This was not something he (Anderson) wrote in a journal. This is something that we actually saw. We saw him being murdered on television,” said Frederica Wilson, a state senator from Miami.
Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee