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The Tragic Death of Martin Lee

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It had been a clear and brilliant day in early January, the kind that can still draw tourists to the glittering beach near this Gulf Coast town. But most visitors don't venture into the Millville neighborhood, a down-on-its-luck section of Panama City, Florida, where working-class parents like Gina Jones and Robert Anderson make hard choices all the time. Gina hadn't wanted to end that day as she knew she must, by dropping off her son, Martin Lee Anderson, at the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp. Martin was to serve a six-month stint for violating his probation on a grand theft auto charge.

The drive from the old, bright yellow cottage she rented to the boot camp would be quick-less than five minutes if she took the short route past her mother's house, which brushed a sandy edge of Redwood Cemetery. If her son looked out of the car's passenger window as they passed the graveyard, he could see the back of his father's house. As Gina pulled into the camp's parking lot late that afternoon, she thought that she should just keep going and take her son with her. She hadn't liked the harsh tone of the camp supervisor during a preintake meeting she'd attended with Martin. And she certainly didn't like the gang-member label the justice system had placed on her child even before he was locked up. That day Martin told his mama not to worry. He said he'd be strong no matter what, and live, as he'd written in a poem a few weeks earlier, "like a tiger...like a lion." His words spoke strength, but in her baby's chocolate eyes, Gina saw fear. Sitting there in a visitation room as they prepared to say goodbye, Gina wanted to reach out with her sturdy hands and stroke Martin's dreadlocks-beautiful strands that his little sister had twisted with glorious precision. Although no glass separated mother from son, the rules barred touching. She comforted herself with the thought that just a little more than a mile separated the boy and the camp's snarling razor wire from his family. But what Gina could not know as she drove away was that within 36 hours Martin would be dead. 

BOY IN THE HOOD

From the time he could crawl, Martin was the sort of inquisitive baby who was into everything. Marriage never bonded Robert and Gina, but their handsome little boy did-for a while at least. By the time Martin was trying to walk, his mother was pregnant with his sister, Startavia. Robert gave "Star" his last name though she wasn't his little girl. Not long after, he left to drive trucks across the country. It paid a decent wage, but it took him far from his rambunctious baby boy. Back in Panama City, Gina tried to make do on food stamps, Medicaid, child support and any minimum-wage jobs she could piece together. She eventually remarried, though she and her second husband later separated. Amid the changing landscape, Martin was edging down the wrong road. Juvenile records say he was 8 years old when he was first arrested for petty larceny. The charges were later dropped. The one thing that seemed to make Martin happy was basketball. At the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club he was a star. But he was losing interest in the one truly bankable skill he could master: getting an education. By ninth grade he'd landed at Emerald Bay Academy, a school for children with behavioral problems. At first the new school seemed to suit him. Martin made the honor roll. One day Gina got a call from the school saying Martin had become one of the school's best chess players. She was proud; chess, she says, was a game for White kids. But the upswing proved short-lived. Soon he was acting out again. Gina loved her boy, but she was getting tired. Being a cook for about $200 a week at Burger King was enough hard work. It didn't help that just about every time she turned around somebody from Emerald Bay was calling her about Martin cursing out a teacher, sleeping in class, or fighting at the bus stop. She'd call his father to come over and discipline him, which usually consisted of Martin's cell phone being taken away.

When Martin wasn't locked in his room listening to the crunk sounds of Lil' Wayne, he was in the wind. Some nights when he'd come home the raw redness of his eyes spoke volumes. Gina demanded to know if he'd been smoking weed. The answer was a sheepish yes. Those older boys he was hanging out with were no good, she told him. Robert told her to ease back; that smothering a 14-year-old wouldn't work.

THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Sometimes Gina's mother, Reto Williams, took her grandchildren to Springfield United Methodist Church. As Reto tells it, on Sunday, June 12, 2005, she was at the front of the church where the pastor praised her work as part of the flock. Martin and his sister were in children's church-or so she thought. 

"Yeah, but while they were giving me praise, the devil was up in there, too, because the kids were sneaking out, getting my keys and going off," Reto later said. Startavia recalls that her brother was behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee when they began their joyride; four of their friends piled in with them. They pulled up to a Kmart, where they pocketed CDs, but in their haste to get away, they rammed the Jeep into a concrete signpost, never making it out of the parking lot.

Martin was charged with grand theft auto and sentenced to house arrest. Work, school and church were to have been his only reasons for going outside during the next 21 days. He was soon back in trouble. In early October he was suspended from school for threatening a teacher. That outburst landed him five days of lockup by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Gina thought it might scare him. But no sooner had he been released than he was arrested for trespassing at a different school. The court recommended that Martin be sent to a "moderate risk" facility. Gina and Robert said they were given the option of sending him to other facilities either in Daytona Beach or Jacksonville, but they wanted him nearby.

A FAMILY'S BATTLE

On January 4, 2006, Martin's parents put him in the hands of the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp, within walking distance of his home, in the hope it might set him on a new path.

Neither Robert nor Gina can reconcile this fact: The next morning Martin walked into the boot camp's exercise yard at 7:40 a.m. and was nearly brain-dead by 9:50 a.m. after being handled by boot camp guards.

Since then, they've been fighting an initial autopsy ruling that labeled his death a result of complications from sickle-cell trait; fighting memories of burying their child only to have his body exhumed; but most of all, they are fighting what they and their attorney allege is a brazen cover-up that stretches from the sheriff's and coroner's offices to Florida's top law agency. "Every night when they look at their kids and grandkids and tell them good night, I wonder do they see my baby's face?" Gina asks.

The night before the family took him to the boot camp, Martin posed for a picture. In it he stares straight at the camera, his dreadlocks framing the face of a boy rushing to manhood. Two days after the picture was taken, Martin lay swollen two hours away from Panama City at Sacred Heart Hospital. His tongue hung from his mouth, his parents recall. His kidneys and liver had shut down. Robert remembers a nurse's plea to end his son's suffering and remove him from life support. But it was a decision that he and Gina had to make together. At Martin's bedside, Robert held his son's hand. "I love you," he whispered. He and Gina wept as they decided to allow him to pass on. At 1:52 a.m. on January 6, their boy was pronounced dead.

THE TALE OF THE TAPE

Weeks after Martin was buried, Robert sat in attorney Benjamin Crump's office about 120 miles away in Tallahassee, where more anguish lay ahead. He and Essence would watch the security videotape of his son's final moments-one hour and 48 minutes-in the boot camp yard. Gina stayed in another room because she feared the images would haunt her forever.

The tape was made public only after the Miami Herald and CNN used Florida's open records law to force the reluctant Florida Department of Law Enforcement to release it. "That's him," Robert said, pointing to the monitor. Even though Martin's dreadlocks had been shorn, Robert identified his son by his gait. About 41 minutes into the tape Martin's squad began laps around the track. Eight minutes later he fell. A few minutes later he collapsed again. Guards swarmed him. Martin said he couldn't run anymore. One officer grabbed him by the left arm, another by the right. His face was pressed against the rough wooden boards of the fence. He was told he must run. When he didn't, his face was pushed in the dirt. Beyond the fence, school buses passed by. Thus began a series of knee strikes, wrist bends and pressure maneuvers to Martin's head that lasted for more than 40 minutes. Some of the officers fetched cups of water that they poured on the boy's head. Ammonia capsules came next. They were held under Martin's nose, while one of seven officers appeared to hold his hand over the boy's mouth. Five of the officers were White; two were Black. A camp nurse stood nearby with her hands on her hips checking Martin's vital signs a couple of times, but seemed to do little else.

Then Martin went limp.

"I guess they didn't realize that was somebody's child they were beating," Robert whispered as the screen went black. "Look at my son, Lord, look at my son. My child was suffering his last minutes on earth."

By Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice policy, all of the officers were supposed to have been trained in CPR. In the video none are seen administering it. And though the department's use-of-force policy authorized many of the blows and maneuvers used on Martin, at least two of the moves that appear to have been applied-a wristlock and a pressure point to the head-were banned in 2004 by the department because too many youngsters had been injured.

Feigning an illness is on the list of juvenile offenders' punishable rule violations in the department's training manuals. It was for this infraction that Martin was pummeled, said 15-year-old Aaron Swartz, who was at the boot camp on a burglary charge. The guards made Swartz and the other "offenders" sit near the edge of the field. He surmised that Martin was judged early on because of his dreadlocks. "I guess they thought he was a thug," Swartz said. By the time Martin fell on his fifteenth lap, Swartz added, the guards seemed to have decided "he was faking."

In an incident report, Sergeant Patrick Garrett wrote that while he was "counseling" Martin and using a knee strike to "escort him to the ground," another officer put an ammonia capsule under "Offender Anderson's nose," after the child said he couldn't breathe well enough to run.

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

In life, a person who has sickle-cell trait may never know. It doesn't cause the debilitating pain of sickle cell disease. But in death, the trait manifests itself by causing the blood cells to form a telltale C shape or sickle. Martin's blood sickled, and that was the cause of his death, or so ruled Charles Siebert, M.D., the Bay County medical examiner who performed the first autopsy on Martin's bruised body. It was a call that could prove pivotal.

Immediately Siebert's finding struck Martin's parents as suspicious, as did certain other details of the case.

How could an otherwise benign condition have killed the child but the beating had little or no effect? And why had Siebert done the autopsy and not the Escambia County medical examiner? Autopsies are usually, though not always, done in the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Officially, Martin died in Escambia County, not Bay. Siebert told Essence that he did the autopsy at the request of investigators from the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

As word of Siebert's ruling spread, leaders from the Bay County branch of the NAACP helped organize a town meeting: A Black boy was buried long before his time and his parents needed answers. Soon members of the state legislative Black caucus began calling for arrests.

Siebert stood by his ruling and defended himself against a growing chorus of voices that accused him of not revealing what people thought was the true cause of Martin's death. "It's hard to be accused of covering up and standing behind these guards when I had nothing to do with that," he told Essence. There have been documented cases of people who've died from complications of sickle-cell trait after being put through rigorous exercise, says Howard Pearson, M.D., who directs Yale-New Haven Hospital's sickle-cell screening program. According to Siebert, he did not find any evidence during the autopsy that suggested anything other than sickle-cell trait as the medical reason for Martin's death. As for asphyxia as a possible cause, Siebert cited the carbon dioxide levels in Martin's blood as having been too low for that to have happened. Death from trait? Nonsense, says Gina. "They killed my baby."

The tape and the ruling brought nationwide media attention. Even so, the guards and nurse were not immediately fired or charged. Public pressure mounted and Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a former supporter of boot camps, appointed Hillsborough state's attorney Mark Ober to investigate.

Ober first had to deal with the cause-of-death ruling. There was only one way to do it: Exhume Martin's body. Gina said she spent a week asking God whether it was right to disturb her son's body. People talked to her about Lazarus, even Jesus, saying they'd risen for a greater purpose. After more prayer, God seemed to answer. Robert and Gina would allow it.

The second autopsy on March 13 lasted 12 hours. Siebert was there, but leading the examination was Hillsborough County medical examiner Vernard Adams, M.D., brought in by Ober. Crump, Gina and Robert's attorney, brought in his own reinforcement, Michael Baden, M.D., who is the current chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Baden, who also hosts the HBO documentary series Autopsy, could only observe. But what he saw in that room convinced him sickled blood didn't kill the boy. "Martin did not die of any sort of genetic disorder or other disease," Baden says. "The reason for his death was what we saw on that videotape. The blows didn't kill him. What killed him was his inability to breathe caused by guards putting their hands over his nose and mouth." 

Baden also said Martin was likely brain-dead before he left the field. Though the second autopsy shed new light, Robert and Gina were not satisfied. They appeared on every talk show that would have them-the Today Show, Hannity & Colmes, anywhere to give their child a voice. "We're saying let this be the last child, Black or White, who dies in the custody of the state of Florida," Crump says.

On May 5, the results of the second autopsy hit like a thunderclap: Martin died of suffocation, not complications from sickle-cell trait. Huddled in their attorney's office just hours after the results were released, Gina appeared calm. 

"It's getting there, slowly," she says. Meanwhile, Siebert, who was contacted by Essence shortly after the ruling, insisted the boy died of natural causes. Kurt Schmoke, dean of Howard University's law school and former mayor of and state's attorney for Baltimore, points out that with two conflicting medical examiners' reports, it could be easy to create doubt in a jury's mind. 

Months after Martin's body was buried for the second time, no one has been arrested. But progress has come in fits and starts. The Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp was shut down in April, and in May, Gov. Bush signed The Martin Lee Anderson Act to close the remaining four camps in the state and prohibit the use of ammonia and other means of restraint. In addition, says Bay County Sheriff's spokeswoman Ruth Sasser, none of the guards or the nurse who appear on the videotape are still employed by the sheriff's office. Earlier during the year, Guy Tunnell, the former Bay County sheriff who founded the boot camp and Florida's top law enforcement official in charge of investigating the camp, resigned after the media discovered E-mails he sent to the sheriff's staff. The E-mails showed he tried to steer the investigation away from the office as well as keep the video showing Martin being beaten by guards from the public eye.

Meanwhile, last spring nearly 2,000 college students marched on the state capitol demanding justice for Martin. Crump ushered the boy's parents into Gov. Bush's office for an 80-minute meeting. At first, according to Crump, a nervous Gina would not look at the governor. But as the meeting rocked on, Crump said Gina looked Bush in the eye. If it had been his daughter, she asked him, wouldn't he want justice, too?

A SEARCH FOR MEANING

On another brilliant day, as kids in Volvos and Chevy Blazers pour into Panama City for spring break, Gina packs up her family's belongings in preparation for a move to another house. Earlier in the day she had raked the gray sand in the front yard, weaving the grains into a beautiful, abstract pattern. Startavia says her mother rakes the yard a lot since Martin has been gone. "She said she's out there thinking," Startavia says.

Martin's grandmother Reto believes that it's no accident that her grandson shares a birth date with Martin Luther King, Jr. Just like King, "what happened to my grandbaby is gonna be for the glory," she says. "It's gonna shine a light."

Inside the house, Martin's room is exactly as he left it: Posters of his favorite rappers adorn the white walls; his sports jerseys hang in the tiny closet. In the living room among his framed honor roll certificates is the poem he wrote before he went to the boot camp: "I am like a tiger...I am like a lion." Toward the end of the poem he described himself as something his parents always knew he was: "I am like a shining star in the world."

Rosalind Bentley is a writer in Atlanta.

Photo Credit: Brian Smith

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