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State Turns Down USF Request for Dozier Exhumations

The state has turned down a request by USF researchers to allow them to exhume bodies at the Boot Hill Cemetery at the former Arthur G. Dozier School in Marianna.

In a letter (see slideshow above) sent to anthropologists Erin Kimmerle and Christian Wells today, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said that by requesting permission to conduct exhumations, the "inquiry diverged from its original objectives."

He added that the state's Bureau of Archeological Research doesn't have the authority to allow the exhumation of human remains, "absent a danger to the grave site that actually threatened the loss or damage of those remains."

Detzner also says that under Florida law, "human bodies are not objects to to be dug up for research purposes."

He encouraged the investigators to continue working with the Attorney General's office, the State Attorney and the local medical examiner to determine if crimes were committed at Dozier. However, he said, such an investigation does not fall under the Department of State's authority.

Earlier this year, a Jackson County judge wouldn't issue a court order allowing exhumation, saying instead that state law allows the medical examiner to conduct the dig without his permission.

The researchers investigating the Boot Hill cemetery on the grounds of the former reform school in Marianna had submitted a request to the state to dig up suspected graveshafts to see if any of the young men who died under mysterious circumstances between 1911 and 1973 are buried there.

Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been a strong proponent of the researchers' work at Dozier, was quick to react to Detzner's decision.

“At this point, it’s starting to look like a classic run-around,” Nelson said in an email to the media. “This is state-owned land, it’s the state’s responsibility and the state of Florida needs to do the right thing and not pass the buck.”

He also later issued a statement on Twitter:

Credit Sen. Bill Nelson's office
Sen. Bill Nelson's office
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's tweet in response to the decision not to allow exhumation of remains at Dozier: "Too many children unaccounted for at Dozier. Families have a right to know. If the gov. really wanted to do something about it, he could."

In an email to WUSF this afternoon, USF Media/Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman said that the researchers and university officials will meet with the school's general counsel on Tuesday and will be able to respond to the state's decision after that.

Last week, USF Associate Professor of Anthropology Christian Wells said that the team recently found out about a possible second burial site on Dozier property, located on land they didn't know was owned by the state until they were told about it in an email from the Division of Public Lands a few weeks ago.

"It's an area that is separated from the current parcel that has the Boot Hill cemetery by a historical garbage dump, essentially," said Wells. "And so we've walked through the area of the garbage dump, but we haven't yet had an opportunity to do ground-penetrating radar or any other kind of search on this new parcel of land."

Wells says they'll ask the state for access to the property to begin a search there - a task that, like the work they've already done at Dozier, will not include the exhumation of any bodies.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story may have given the impression that the researchers will NEVER be allowed to conduct exhumations at Dozier. That is not the case, as university officials say other options are still being explored. 

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