The seven former Bay County juvenile boot camp guards who pummeled 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson after he collapsed from a run and then forced him to inhale ammonia tablets when he stopped responding, and the nurse who stood by and watched even after Anderson went limp, were found not guilty of aggravated manslaughter yesterday. Anderson died, the jury decided, not because he was suffocated, as one autopsy concluded, but because of sickle-cell trait, as another autopsy found.
If one allows that the conflicting autopsies were both conducted in good faith, then the cause of Anderson’s death, it would seem, is a matter of debate even among medical professionals–and the jury, in turn, found one of the professionals’ conclusions more persuasive than the other. The jury watched the video, heard the testimonies and arguments and concluded that Anderson’s condition killed him even before the guards set in on him. I can disagree with them till my hands hurt from typing, but at least I can understand how they arrived at their decision. What I can’t accept–and can’t even understand–is how they sat through this case (and repeated viewings of the surveillance video that captured the scene) and decided against lesser convictions such as child neglect and negligence. What message does that send?
Maia Szalavitz, a journalist who writes about science and adolescent psychology, has it right, I think. In a post about the verdict at Huffington Post, she writes, “In America, it’s OK to kill a child so long as you have been hired to practice ‘tough love.'” She goes on:
Shouldn’t the people charged with caring for troubled teens be made to presume that their complaints are genuine until proven otherwise? Shouldn’t those whose job it is to protect their health– like nurses– err on the side of believing a faker, not having a child die to prove he really was ill or injured? Why is presuming kids are faking and striking them and forcing them to inhale ammonia to prove otherwise legal?
And how did we ever become so callous that we allow kids to be beaten in order to prove that they aren’t making excuses to get out of exercising? When did we decide that death is an appropriate sentence for malingering?
I share Szalavitz’s (and Anderson’s parents’) sense of bafflement and outrage.