Eight minutes. That’s the length of the video that captures the final moments of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson’s life while he was in the care of juvenile boot camp drill instructors.
The video shows Anderson surrounded by more than a half-dozen guards subduing him through use of aggressive tactics typically reserved for the most threatening criminals. In the background, a nurse paces as she watches the officers handle Anderson. Later, one of the guards covers the boy’s mouth while others break ammonia tablets in his only available breathing passage.
This all took place on Anderson’s first day at the camp in January 2006.
Two hours. That was how long it took for a jury of six to find the guards and the nurse not guilty of aggravated manslaughter.
The reaction to the decision was instantaneous.
The lack of even one person of color on the jury caused an outcry that the ruling was yet another example of racism infiltrating the justice system. Students marched in Tallahassee. Legislators are calling for a boycott of Bay County, home of the juvenile camp and the trial. The United States Justice Department is having its civil rights division review the evidence to ensure that a miscarriage of justice did not take place.
There are many questions that have gone unanswered for the rest of the nation that watched from the outside while this trial took place. The video of the incident – which can easily be found on YouTube.com – seemed to show damning evidence that the guards were using unnecessary force on an unarmed child.
Oddly, however, the jury was apparently convinced of evidence that the guards were in no way responsible for the death.
For the past week, the media has covered Anderson’s sickle cell trait, and it has become apparent that this was the focal point of the defense. The initial autopsy by the local medical examiner revealed that this was the cause of death. A second autopsy, however, pointed to suffocation, which matched well with the video evidence.
If it is a scientific fact that Anderson’s death was caused by this blood trait, there are two important questions that need to be examined. First, what are the odds that this trait caused his death in the exact same time frame he was being kicked and smothered by seven guards? Second, if the medical examiner could so easily find his sickle cell trait to be the cause of death, why were the camp and nurse not fully aware of and prepared for his condition? The camp was charged with his rehabilitation and safety; somewhere camp staffers failed.
At Parris Island, home of basic training for the United States Marine Corps, drill instructors are not allowed to purposely touch a recruit unless there is a clear threat and it is done in self-defense. Anderson was assaulted for quitting a running drill on his first day of camp.
In addition, the Marine Corps works with adults who volunteer to endure that experience, and most enter physically prepared and knowing what to expect. Each USMC recruit has passed medical examinations. Each exercise, whether it is as dangerous as live-weapons training or as basic as a one-mile jog, has numerous trained medics on hand who intervene immediately for common cramps and injuries. The reason all of these precautions are in place is that even though the recruits who experience military training may ultimately lose their lives in combat, each one is considered a valuable investment.
The jury may have found the guards and the nurse not guilty, but that does not mean they are not a part of the system that’s responsible for devaluing Anderson and many other children who find themselves in the same situation.
Some people have said this isn’t about race. Many claim the marches are pointless and the boycotts absurd. There is a serious problem if people decide to leave this situation as it is by accepting the verdict and the reason behind it.
To be content with this verdict and not question it makes everyone guilty of neglect.
Curtiss Gibson is a senior majoring in English literature.