New law revamps state boot camps

The parents of a 14-year-old who died watch the governor sign the legislation

Orlando Sentineln/June 1, 2006
By Jason Garcia

Tallahassee -- With Martin Lee Anderson's parents standing behind him, Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday signed a law aimed at ensuring a death like Martin's never happens again.

Named after the 14-year-old boy who died a day after he was beaten by guards at a Panama City boot camp, the 2006 "Martin Lee Anderson Act" will eliminate boot camps as they exist today in Florida and replace them with less military-like programs.

"This won't bring your son back. But I hope you know that your involvement in this process has made a difference," Bush told Martin's parents before signing the bill in a small ceremony in his office.

Martin died Jan. 6, one day after a group of guards at a boot camp for young offenders was caught on videotape kicking and kneeing him. He had been brought there after he was accused of stealing his grandmother's Jeep Cherokee.

An initial autopsy conducted by Bay County Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Siebert concluded that the boy died of complications from sickle-sell trait, a typically benign blood disorder common among blacks. But a second autopsy, ordered by the special prosecutor investigating the death, found that Martin suffocated because the guards forced ammonia capsules into his nose in an attempt to revive him after the beating. Siebert has stood by his initial findings.

The boot camp, which was run by the Bay County Sheriff's Office under a state contract, has since closed, though no one has been charged with a crime. A spokeswoman for special prosecutor Mark Ober, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, said there is no timeframe for when the criminal investigation will be complete.

Under the new law, the four remaining boot camps across the state, including one in Polk County, also will shut down. They will be replaced by Sheriff's Training and Respect programs, or STAR academies, that place more emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. The law forbids guards from using "harmful psychological intimidation techniques" on children, including threats of violence or efforts to humiliate. It largely outlaws the use of "pain compliance techniques" and bans altogether the use of weapons such as pepper spray and Tasers. It also will stop guards from using ammonia capsules like the ones blamed in Martin's death.

"It's a significant change to, I think, improve the chance of a young person being given a second chance to be successful in life," Bush said.

When asked whether they thought the new law would have prevented Martin's death had it been in place at the time, the boy's parents, Gina Jones and Robert Anderson, answered in unison: "Yes."

But Jones also made it clear that she wants the people responsible for Martin's death to be held accountable. "I would still like the guards to be accountable for killing my baby," she said. "He was only 14 years old."

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