PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Family members of the eight former boot camp employees charged with letting a child die began to sob as soon as the not guilty verdict was read. Across the courtroom, the child’s mother got up and stormed out, yelling “It’s wrong.”

All seven guards and a nurse charged with the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson were acquitted Friday – the all-white jury deliberated just two hours following a two-week trial.

Shortly after the verdict was read, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced it was opening an investigation into the case.

Outside the courthouse, Anderson’s mother expressed anger. “At least we know you can kill a young black male and get away with it,” she said. “How the hell are they going to let them walk away.”

The guards were videotaped on Jan. 5, 2006, hitting and kicking Anderson, and jabbing their fingers in pressure points on his head for nearly 30 minutes while the nurse watched. The videotape was made public and drew national media attention.

The eight employees were later charged with aggravated manslaughter.

But experts throughout the trial insisted that the boy did not die from the blows he received by the guards.

Prosecutors had argued that the defendants were responsible for Anderson’s death because the guards held their hands over his mouth while repeatedly pushing ammonia close to his nose, once for as long as five minutes.

Tampa’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Vernard Adams, who did a second autopsy on the teen, ruled suffocation was the cause of death.

Bay County’s medical examiner, who did the first autopsy, testified he died of sickle cell trait, a normally benign condition.

But the jury had to weigh the testimony of other experts, including that of New Hampshire’s medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Andrew. As a witness for prosecutors, he testified that Anderson died of sickle cell trait aggravated by the beating and the suffocation.

The defense called an expert in sickle cell collapse who said Anderson’s death was a classic case of that extremely rare medical problem and that he had begun to die before the guards began hitting and kicking him.

The only two defendants to speak to the media after the trial were two black guards. Both expressed relief the trial was over and sympathy for Anderson’s family.

“Trust me, every single one of us feels bad about this,” Henry McFadden said.

Henry Dickens, a black guard who grew up in segregated Atlanta, said he blamed sickle cell trait all along for Anderson’s death.

“I’m wondering why we didn’t know about this,” he said. “If we had, he wouldn’t have been out there.”

Asked how he felt about being attacked by the NAACP, Dickens, 60, said it was disappointing.

“All this black and white stuff should be over with by now,” he said. “That was my time … Today’s NAACP, the only thing they care about is race. That’s not what Dr. Martin Luther King talked about. He talked about a world without race.”

Dickens looked crestfallen, when he learned of the Justice Department investigation.

“I don’t know what to think about that,” he said. “It looks like this is going to go on and on … I can’t say I welcome it, no. I just want this thing to end and get behind us.”

Across the street from the courthouse, two protesters screamed “guilty” at passing cars. A handful of protesters on both sides have periodically stood across from the courthouse during the trial.

“I guess they’re not going to be satisfied until it says we’re guilty, but we’re not guilty,” Dickens said sadly.

Attorneys for the other defendants said their clients were relieved.

“There was a lot of medical evidence and it all, I think, was on our side,” Robert Sombathy, attorney for Patrick Garrett, said. “But I think the key moment was when the defense took the stand.”

Each defendant testified that they thought Anderson was faking an illness when he refused to continue running around the boot camp track. They said they had treated other malingering inmates in the past in the same manner.

“Everybody wished they could have gone back in time and done everything differently, but that doesn’t make it a crime,” Sombathy said.

Dr. Charles Siebert, the Bay County Medical Examiner who first ruled Anderson’s death was due to sickle cell trait, said he felt the verdict vindicated him.

“I think finally people were looking at the science, looking at the facts, and not just an emotional video,” he said. “Because of all the political pressure, because of the racial undertones and because of the special interest groups, a lot of the true facts hadn’t come out yet.”

“There were a lot of things done to discredit me … I had the truth behind me,” he said.

The acquittals drew outrage from black leaders around the state.

“To insinuate that sickle cell trait had anything to do with this young man’s death is an abomination,” said state Rep. Terry Fields, a Jacksonville Democrat. “I think all the state of Florida should be outraged. I don’t know what kind of message Bay County is trying to send to the rest of the state and the country, but this is not justice.”

Anderson’s family and friends and supporters gathered at a nearby church.

Chuck Hobbs, legal advisor for the state NAACP, said the organization hoped the family would find justice in the federal courts. At the church he brought up the Rodney King case in which Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in state court but later convicted in federal court for beating a black man.

“I have a hard time believing that a parent, if their child were malingering, would hit and beat him or touch pressure points,” Hobbs said.

The Anderson family attorney, Benjamin Crump, said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict but still disappointed.

He predicted the first day of the trial that an all-white jury in Panama City would acquit the defendants.

“This is a tough pill to swallow,” he said outside the courthouse. “You kill a dog, you go to jail, but you kill a little black boy, nothing happens.”

(Staff writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.)

(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-12-07 1923EDT

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