Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Fatal Justice

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Fatal Justice

Article excerpt

Investigation of teen offender's death leads to state juvenile justice reforms

When officials with the Bay County, FIa., sheriff's office announced that a healthy, athletic 14-year-old boy had died unexpectedly of an apparent illness - only moments after what they described as a harmless "restraint"' at their boot camp - we wanted to know more about the incident.

We started asking questions on Jan. 6, the day Martin Lee Anderson was removed from a life-support system at Pensacola's Sacred Heart Hospital, and the story turned into a six-month investigation that would lead to system-wide changes in Florida's long-troubled juvenile justice system.

Our reporting also set in motion ongoing criminal and civil rights investigations into the youth's death, and forced prosecutors and law enforcement officers to re-examine an early finding that Anderson died of natural causes.

Relying on the Department of Juvenile Justice's own data, we initially reported that Florida's military-style youth camps were among the least effective youth programs in the state, yielding a 62 percent recidivism rate. We immediately requested all inspector general reports for the Panama City boot camp, revealing that in the two years before Anderson stopped breathing at the boot camp at least two other boys had claimed they'd been choked during a restraint.

The story of the teen's death gained national attention in February when The Miami Herald convinced two state lawmakers to describe what they saw on a grainy 30-40-minute videotape of Martin's last moments at the boot camp. The state representatives said Martin had been "brutally" beaten by guards and "flung around like a rag doll."

Brutal detail

Along with CNN, we sued in state court for the video's release, arguing that the tape became a public record the moment the two lawmakers viewed it. In making our case, we relied on an e-mail, obtained in a public records request, in which a Bay County prosecutor said release of the tape to anyone outside law enforcement would render the record public.

The video was released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement under a settlement with the newspaper and CNN in February. After it was broadcast to a national audience, Florida officials acknowledged that something terrible had happened to the Panama City teen.

In the next several weeks, we requested a host of public records from the sheriff's office, which ran the boot camp; the state law enforcement and juvenile justice departments; and other agencies. The resulting stories shed additional light on Anderson's death and the alleged cover-up of the incident.

We reported that the boot camp guards are supposed to use physical force on detained youths only when they pose a threat to life or property or a risk of escape, and only then as a last resort.

Further, we reported that the Panama City boot camp's own use-of-force report disclosed, in brutal detail, exactly what happened to Anderson. The restraint report, written by the guards in their own words, detailed every force technique that was used and quoted the youth as insisting he "couldn't breathe" at one point during the episode. …

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