Sunday, October 21, 2007

In Bay County, it's still 1963

By Elisa Cramer

Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Friday, October 19, 2007

No one who observed the boisterous gloating in and outside of a Bay County courtroom last week would have thought that a child had died.

"We're on cloud nine," defense attorney Waylon Graham said, "and there's nothing sweeter than having eight not-guilty verdicts."

When Mr. Graham boasted after the jury's Oct. 12 verdict that he was going to party and "drink lots of alcohol and smoke a lot of big cigars," he clearly did not have in mind the 14-year-old boy whose death a year and a half earlier led him to court to defend a guard who had helped beat the teenager until he fell limp, into a coma and was placed on life support.

Mr. Graham had a message for the governor after an all-white jury spent about an hour and a half deciding to acquit of manslaughter the seven guards who beat the black teenager at a juvenile boot camp and a nurse who stood by and watched the 40-minute attack: "I'd like to say to Charlie Crist: Put this in your pipe and smoke it."

In fact, Mr. Graham's message was aimed beyond the state's chief executive to, as he described during the trial, all outside "agitators" who dared meddle in his county.

It was the same phrase white segregationists used in an effort to slur civil rights activists - especially from Northern states - in the 1960s. Its use was just as deliberate last week in small-town Bay County, where racial divisions and an influential network of good ol' hometown officials are on overt display.

So angered by outside agitators, Bay County State Attorney Steve Meadows hired the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who led the coverup of the beating and the medical examiner who incredibly claimed that Martin Lee Anderson died of a previously undiagnosed - and typically nonfatal - blood disorder.

To underscore the town's aversion to outsiders, Mr. Graham asked an out-of-town medical examiner where he grew up. Dr. Vernard Adams - who, with a team of experts, had determined that Martin Lee Anderson died of suffocation by the guards, who placed their hands over the teen's mouth while forcing ammonia fumes into his nose - answered Maine.

Mr. Graham aimed his response at the jury: "I grew up right here."

Mr. Graham's Panhandle birthplace is Port St. Joe - where the murders of two white gas station attendants in 1963 were wrongfully pinned on Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two African-American men.

According to TheSt. Petersburg Times, as Mr. Graham strutted before CourtTV cameras after the verdict, Bay County Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet, who had returned to the courtroom after presiding, watched, chuckling and smiling. Even the local sheriff sat with the guards' families throughout the trial.

For the same reasons that the investigation correctly was moved out of Bay County by then-Gov. Bush, the trial should not have been held there. Several potential jurors begged to be released because they had ties to the guards, to Martin Anderson's family, to the corrections system. Residents told reporters before the trial that their minds were pretty much made up - whites were siding with the guards, four of whom were white, two black and one Asian.

Nor should the state have omitted the fact that the guards' so-called restraining techniques - kneeing in the back, striking Martin Anderson's wrists and limbs, dragging him around - had been banned by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in 2004. Before Martin Lee Anderson's beating death, the state Department of Juvenile Justice had ignored 180 use-of-force reports from the Panama City boot camp - including manhandling of teens for shrugging or smiling.

Because of outside "agitators," the state acknowledged in a settlement with Martin Lee Anderson's family that the teenager had "complained of breathing difficulties but was not given the proper medical attention" and "the entire matter was captured on security surveillance video camera and was released to the public only after The Miami Herald and CNN sued."

Because of outside "agitators," the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating under federal civil rights laws.

Because of blind hometown loyalty at best and racism at worst, only those outside "agitators" can point out how fouled up things are inside Bay County.

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