Autopsy: At Least Doc Got Gender Right
March 5, 2006
By CARL HIAASEN
The good folks of Panama City can rest easy, as
long as they don't die.
Dr. Charles Siebert has renewed his license to
He's the medical examiner who recently ruled that
14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson expired of ''natural causes'' after
being kneed, choked and punched by guards at the Bay County Boot Camp.
Previously, Siebert had signed an autopsy report on
a woman named Donna Reed in which he described her appendix,
gallbladder, ovaries and uterus -- organs that had been surgically
removed years earlier, according to her mother.
As a bonus, Dr. Siebert also awarded Ms. Reed a
prostate gland and two testicles, a mistake he attributed to conducting
the autopsy during a storm-related power outage.
Apparently, the lights were working fine when
Siebert examined Martin's body.
On the plus side, he correctly identified the
gender of the victim. On the negative side, he flubbed the case.
Instead of focusing on the boot-camp beating,
Siebert concluded that Martin died of complications from sickle-cell
trait, a genetic blood disorder. He later speculated that the condition
was exacerbated by strenuous exercise at the camp.
The ruling has baffled sickle-cell experts, not to
mention legislators, Martin's family and millions of TV viewers who've
seen the disturbing videotape of the boy being kneed and shoved to the
ground by a group of seven to nine guards on Jan. 5. He was rushed to a
hospital and died the next day.
Incredibly, seven weeks afterward, Gov. Jeb Bush
was saying he still hadn't seen the video. Maybe the VCR at the mansion
was on the fritz, or maybe he got swept up watching the Olympic curling
Regardless, it's a fairly serious event when a
young teen dies under chaotic circumstances in state custody. Bush, a
big fan of boot camps, has been slow to criticize anybody.
Of the five such facilities in Florida, Bay
County's is one of the worst-performing, according to the Department of
Juvenile Justice. In four of the years between 1999 and 2004, more than
half the camp's graduates were re-arrested or convicted of another crime
within 12 months of their release.
Martin was sent there after taking his
grandmother's car for a joyride. A spokesman for the boot camp said the
guards got physical with the teen because he was being
''uncooperative,'' although there was no indication that he was unruly
The Bay County Boot Camp's manual says that force
should be a ''last resort,'' but evidently the rule was often ignored.
Martin's death was handled suspiciously from day
one. His body wasn't autopsied at the hospital in Escambia County where
he was pronounced dead. Instead, it was flown back to Panama City and
sent to Dr. Siebert.
A DJJ official said Siebert told her that shifting
the autopsy venue was ''highly unusual,'' and was done at the request of
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen. His office runs the boot camp where
Martin was roughed up.
Later, Siebert denied saying there was anything
extraordinary about how the youth's autopsy was assigned.
The outlandish ''sickle-cell'' explanation for
Martin's death would have been difficult to challenge were it not for
the 20-minute videotape of the guards' actions, during which the teen
appears limp and unresisting.
And the tape itself wouldn't have been made public
if The Miami Herald and CNN hadn't sued the Florida Department of Law
Enforcement to get it.
We are assured that the agency's reluctance to
cough up the video had nothing to with the fact FDLE Commissioner Guy
Tunnell is the former Bay County sheriff and founder of the boot camp.
Several of the guards now under investigation were hired on his watch.
Sheriff McKeithen says he's shutting down the
facility in May because of the controversy. In the past, other kids have
come forward to complain of being choked and struck.
Bush expressed surprise at the camp's closing, but
it couldn't come soon enough for Rep. Gus Barreiro, the Miami Beach
Republican who chairs the House criminal-justice appropriations
Unlike the governor, Barreiro demanded a prompt
screening of the boot-camp videotape. He was so outraged by what he saw
that he wanted all juvenile boot-camp inmates transferred elsewhere
until strict use-of-force rules and other safety measures were emplaced.
Another Republican, Rep. J.C. Planas of Miami, has
called for the state to shut down all juvenile boot-camp facilities.
Bush recently asked sheriffs running the camps to
come up with tighter guidelines. Meanwhile, a special prosecutor from
Tampa has been appointed to investigate the Martin Lee Anderson case,
and a second autopsy will be done by a different medical examiner.
Dr. Siebert's license to practice expired Jan. 31,
though he kept working until he got it renewed in late February.
The doctor has said he didn't see the boot-camp
video before finishing Martin's autopsy. After viewing the tape, he now
acknowledges the possibility that the clobbering by guards ''played a
bit of a role'' in the teen's death.
Right. In the same small way that John Wilkes Booth
contributed to Abe Lincoln's headache.