The Associated Press
5:28 PM EDT, October 4, 2007
A 14-year-old boy died because complications from a blood disorder were triggered when boot camp guards interrupted his breathing by making him inhale ammonia capsules, a medical examiner testified Thursday in the manslaughter trial of the drill instructors and a nurse.
Dr. Thomas Andrew, New Hampshire's chief medical examiner and a prosecution witness, told jurors that Martin Lee Anderson's death was caused by a chain of events that set off the undiagnosed genetic blood disorder called sickle cell trait.
The boy had collapsed after running laps at the Panama City camp run by the sheriff's office. The guards broke the ammonia tablets and then held them under Anderson's nose with his mouth covered, Andrew said. That deprived him of oxygen while he was already dehydrated, Andrew added.
This exacerbated the usually benign disorder, causing his blood cells to shrivel into a sickle shape and limiting their ability to carry oxygen, Andrew testified. He said Anderson could have recovered if he had been given time to rest, catch his breath and drink some water.
Defense attorneys said in opening statements a day earlier that they would show Anderson's death could not have been prevented and was caused solely by sickle cell trait. Prosecutors say the guards killed the boy because of the videotaped altercation and the nurse stood by without helping him.
Prosecutor Scott Harmon asked Andrew whether the guards' kneeing, hitting, and dragging Anderson's limp body around the camp yard for 30 minutes along the ammonia could have hurt his ability to recover.
"What he needs is oxygen and what he is being is deprived of is oxygen so this is increasing an already dangerous situation," Andrew said. "That's what makes it so dangerous, the sickling began because of the lack of oxygen so over time it gets worse."
Generally, people who carry sickle cell trait have healthy lives, Andrew testified. It mainly affects African-Americans and Anderson was black.
People with sickle cell trait have some normal red blood cells, but also have some that are abnormal. Those abnormal cells can begin to sickle under stress, Andrew testified. He said the reaction causes a victim to have a higher demand for oxygen.
James White, defense attorney for guard Raymond Hauck, called Andrew a "Monday morning quarterback."
"You cannot look at that video tape and tell whether they're gaps between their fingers," White said, and suggested his client and the other guards allowed Anderson to breathe.
Andrew said he could not see the tape clearly enough to view the guards' exact hand positions.
White also suggested Andrew lacked experience with sickle trait, a condition common in the black population.
Earlier Thursday, jurors watched intently as prosecutors played the exercise yard surveillance video of the guards hitting Anderson. Jurors showed little reaction -- some shifted slightly in their seats during the most violent parts.
The hour-long video from Jan. 5, 2006, shows Anderson and the other boys on the day they entered the Bay County boot camp. Anderson died the next day at a Pensacola hospital.
The boy's father, Robert Anderson, sat near jurors in the front of the courtroom with his heads in his hands throughout the video.
Dr. Jason Foland, a pediatric critical care doctor who treated Anderson at the hospital, testified that he arrived in critical condition.
"He was unresponsive to pain. The only finding to equate with some sign of life were that his pupils shrunk in reaction to light. It was some time before he became unresponsive to light," Foland testified.
Later Thursday, Waylon Graham, the attorney for guard Charles Helms, asked Anderson's pediatrician if he would have suggested the boy restrict strenuous exercise like that required at the camp if he knew the teen had sickle cell trait. Dr. Samir Ebid said it was unlikely he would have stopped Anderson from playing sports.
Graham also asked whether Anderson's mother should have disclosed that her son tested positive for sickle trait at birth. But Ebid said the trait is not part of his standard medical screening.
"There is a big difference between the disease and the trait. Sickle cell trait can go practically unnoticed," Ebid said.