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Feds likely to review acquittal in boot-camp death

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Seven former juvenile boot camp guards and a nurse had barely processed an all-white jury's decision to acquit them in a black teenager's death before federal authorities announced they would review the case.

Since jurors on Friday acquitted them of manslaughter charges, federal prosecutors likely would have to try another tactic, such as seeking an indictment alleging obstruction of justice, legal experts said.

"It's too early to say that the final chapter has been written with respect to the criminal justice system in this case," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami.

Florida civil rights leaders called for federal charges hours after a jury took 90 minutes to exonerate the eight in state court in the death of Martin Lee Anderson, 14.

By Friday evening, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tallahassee announced they were reviewing the state's prosecution.

Anderson died Jan. 6, 2006, a day after being hit and kicked by the guards as the nurse watched after he collapsed while running laps. The 30-minute confrontation was videotaped.

The altercation drew protests in the state capital and marked the end of Florida's system of juvenile boot camps.

Defense attorneys argued that the camp workers were using accepted tactics and that the boy died because of a pre-existing medical condition.

Coffey said state prosecutors might have laid a foundation for their federal counterparts to seek an obstruction charge by grilling the eight about inconsistencies and omissions in their written accounts of the last conscious moments of Anderson's life when they testified last week.

But lawyer Bob Sombathy, who represented ex-guard Patrick Garrett, said he doubted a federal prosecution would be successful. Sombathy said the state trial showed the medical findings are on the side of the defendants.

"With a 90-minute verdict after a three-week trial (in the state case), it would be the same result," he said.

Ashley Benedik, defense attorney for nurse Kristin Schmidt, said the federal government might not bring charges.

"To a certain extent there was more at stake for the state, there was more of a public outcry," she said.

At a vigil in the impoverished neighborhood where Anderson grew up, community leaders appealed for calm in the wake of the verdict, which they said was affected by Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet's decision to hold the trial in Panama City, where the boot camp was located.

"This is not the end of it. We can take it to a higher court and I hope it will be taken to a higher court," said Panama City Commissioner Jonathan Wilson.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she was not surprised the guards were acquitted by a "hometown jury." Nor would it surprise her if the federal government stepped in, she said.

"This is the very type of case you would expect the Justice Department to take a very close look at, just like the Rodney King case," Levenson said.

King was pulled over for speeding in Los Angeles' eastern San Fernando Valley, where police officers who said he acted menacingly and refused to follow their orders were videotaped kicking him, pummeling him with their nightsticks and shooting him with stun-gun darts.

After a jury acquitted the officers in 1992, riots broke out across Los Angeles and lasted four days, leaving 55 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.

Federal prosecutors in the King case presented new evidence during their trial of the officers, including testimony that the officers had lied and had laughed about the incident, Levenson said.

In the federal trial, two officers were convicted of violating King's civil rights.

Contributing: Brian Skoloff contributed to this report from West Palm Beach