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Judge Denies Dozier Exhumation Court Order (UPDATE)

Katy Hennig
USF News

UPDATED at 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 29th:
1. WTSP reports USF researchers met with state officials, representatives from Sen. Bill Nelson's office and family members of "White House Boys" Tuesday afternoon.

USF officials issued a statement following the meeting:

"This morning, the University of South Florida had a productive meeting with Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox and others regarding the Dozier ruling including representatives from Senator Bill Nelson's office, the Varnadoe family, the NAACP and the Medical Examiner's office.  USF is working collaboratively to continue the research begun by USF Associate Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle and her team.  The USF researchers appreciate the continued interest and support this project has received throughout Florida and the nation, and will be forthcoming with more specific information as it becomes available."

2. Also on Tuesday, Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asking for her opinion on what the next step should be after Judge Wright's ruling.

Despite what appears to be an adverse court ruling on Friday, a close reading of Judge William Wright’s order seems to outline a clear path forward. The judge stated the state may act without a court order, writing specifically: “Florida Statutes §872.05 contains specific provisions for treatment of unmarked human remains, and again there is no requirement for a court order.  If the remains have been buried less than 75 years, or are possibly involved in a criminal investigation, the Medical Examiner has jurisdiction.  If the remains have been buried more than 75 years and are not involved in a criminal investigation, the State Archeologist has jurisdiction.” In fact, we are dealing with unmarked human burials on property owned by the state of Florida.  Moreover, the state Legislature has set aside funding to help pay for the exhumation work. I refuse to believe that the families of those buried in unmarked graves at the former Dozier School have to remain in the dark for one more day. Please advise as to what you consider to be the next step to bring closure to those who may have family members buried at this state-owned site.


ORIGINAL POST 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28th:

A Jackson County judge won't issue a court order allowing the exhumation of human remains at the shuttered Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

But what will happen next is unclear, as the judge ruled that state law allows the medical examiner to conduct the dig without his permission.

Circuit Judge William Wright ruled Friday that the state permit already obtained by the USF anthropologists investigating the cemetery on the reform school grounds is all they need to continue their work. In addition, if they find any human bodies, the local medical examiner can initiate an investigation.

However, according to the News Herald in Panama City, Judge Wright added that there was a lack of evidence to support the exhumation request.

“The petition … is denied because if an order is required, there has been no threshold showing of the anticipated evidence necessary in a civil case,” the judge wrote in his summary. “The medical examiner has statutory authority to conduct investigations, and the state attorney has the authority to pursue autopsies when necessary. There are current Florida laws in place on handling unmarked graves and moving buried human remains.”
Judge Wright ended his ruling by advising Florida officials to proceed with caution and “pay heed” to another judge’s words in an unrelated case: “The quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed. Good and substantial reasons must be shown before disinterment is to be sanctioned.”

The request was made by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who released a statement after the ruling saying she was considering what she'd do next.

“I remain committed to assisting with the efforts to help resolve unanswered questions regarding deaths at the Dozier School for Boys. In light of today’s adverse ruling, we will be meeting with the interested parties and considering the next course of action to explore other avenues.”

Wright also said if the investigation continues, officials should proceed with caution, quoting a 1949 case ruling that said the "quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed."

A research team led by USF Assistant Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle has found nearly 50 unmarked graveshafts -- 19 more than state law enforcement found in a previous investigation. Using records, they released a report saying they documented the deaths of almost 100 people at the school, which was closed after decades of alleged abuse and the mysterious deaths of boys who lived there.

The recently approved Florida budget gave the researchers $190,000, while Senator Bill Nelson is seeking federal funds to help with the investigation.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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