Nelson Asks Feds to Investigate Dozier

Feb 25, 2015

USF Asst. Prof. Erin Kimmerle and Sen. Bill Nelson address reporters at the Dozier School for Boys site in Marianna March 2013.
Credit Katy Hennig / USF News

Florida Senator Bill Nelson has asked the Department of Justice - and not Florida law enforcement officials - to open an investigation into the Dozier School for Boys.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing at the now closed Marianna reform school, despite decades of allegations of abuse of students by school officials.

But University of South Florida researchers found 51 bodies buried in 55 graves an unmarked graveyard on school grounds - 20 more than the FDLE investigation said were there.

The USF researchers also uncovered garbage, syringes, drug bottles and a dog encased in an old water cooler buried in the cemetery. And in a recent report prepared for the Florida Cabinet, researchers said they found, along with the remains of one teenage boy, "(near the left lower abdomen/upper thigh region of the body) was a small lead ball consistent with a projectile."

At a news conference earlier this month, USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle said, "What it looks like is a small, round metal object. It's lead, it looks very much like what you'd see as pellets in a shotgun."

But Kimmerle added there's no way to determine if the projectile was a factor in the boy's death.

Nelson's letter asks outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Loretta Lynch, who has been nominated to replace Holder, to expand the Department of Justice's ongoing probe into more recent inmate deaths in Florida's prison system to cover the Dozier allegations.

"...when the FDLE was asked to comment on the university’s initial findings, officials characterized them as just “an academic research study” with a different standard and scope than a law enforcement investigation.  Local law enforcement, meantime, has expressed no interest in investigating.  Thus, a federal investigation may be the best alternative,"  Nelson wrote.

Nelson has pushed for federal involvement in the Dozier investigation previously, and helped USF researchers receive a $423-thousand grant in 2013 from the D.O.J.'s National Institute of Justice to help fund the use of DNA technology to identify the remains.

Last week, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked the FDLE to look at USF's latest findings to determine if a new investigation is necessary.

Here's Nelson's letter to Holder:

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I am writing to respectfully request that the U.S. Department of Justice examine new evidence about the deaths of youth at a now-defunct Florida reform school as part of the agency’s ongoing probe of more recent inmate deaths in the state’s prison system.  Given new information about wards of the shuttered reform school, and a long history of mistreatment allegations surrounding the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, I believe the department is uniquely positioned to provide an outside and independent review.

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) reported that they have found the remains of 51 individuals buried on the grounds of the reform school.  This contrasts with a 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation concluding that 31 individuals were buried on the school grounds.  Having brought USF’s initial research to the Justice Department’s attention in 2012, I remain troubled that university researchers have uncovered information not contained in the state’s 2009 report.

I am grateful for the assistance the department already has provided USF through a 2013 grant from the National Institute of Justice, which has helped fund the forensic research - research that indicates children at Dozier suffered from nutritional deficiencies, lack of dental care, and underdevelopment.  In one grave, officials discovered what they think may be a buckshot.  Yet in 2012, when the FDLE was asked to comment on the university’s initial findings, officials characterized them as just “an academic research study” with a different standard and scope than a law enforcement investigation.  Local law enforcement, meantime, has expressed no interest in investigating.  Thus, a federal investigation may be the best alternative.

As the Justice Department works to provide answers and closure for the families of Florida prison inmates whose deaths may have stemmed from potential violations of their constitutional rights, I hope you will do the same for the families of these deceased young wards of the state.  I am enclosing a copy of USF’s 15-page report detailing its findings.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions.  I appreciate your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

Bill Nelson