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USF Researchers Receive $423K Federal Grant for Dozier Work

Mark Schreiner

University of South Florida researchers are scheduled to begin exhuming human remains on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys this weekend. Now comes word that they'll be getting some assistance from federal authorities.

The U.S. Department of Justice is giving the researchers, led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, $423,528 in federal grant money to help conduct their search of unmarked graves in the now-closed reform school.

The funds come from a DOJ National Institute of Justice grant for universities and other non-profit organizations that use DNA technology to identify missing persons. The researchers have taken DNA samples from a number of living relatives of boys who died decades ago at Dozier, some under mysterious circumstances.

DNA samples will be taken from the remains exhumed from the unmarked graves at Dozier. If matched with the samples from living relatives, the remains will be given to the families for proper burials. Unidentified remains will be given an ID number and reburied, with the hope identities may be determined at some point in the future.

Dr. Greg Ridgeway, acting director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), tells the Tampa Bay Times one of the reasons for backing the project is its unique nature. (see the NIJ's announcement of the award below)

"As far as I know, we haven't done this kind of mass site before," he said. "In addition to the compelling story in this particular case … as a science agency, we recognize that there's a lot we can learn here."

In thanking the Department of Justice, the NIJ and Senator Bill Nelson, a long-time backer of the research team, Kimmerle said the funding is critical in the next steps of their work.

"This funding is critical for completing the next steps in our research at the Dozier School for Boys including excavating human remains and performing a full anthropological analysis on them," USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle said.

“The NIJ offers an incredible program for cold cases and identification of missing persons.  This funding is critical for completing the next steps in our research at the Dozier School for Boys including excavating human remains and performing a full anthropological analysis on them,” Kimmerle said in a USF press release.

Nelson, who helped identify the grant and later wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in support of the research, also voiced his approval of the decision.

“Hopefully, the scientists can use DNA technology to give the boys who are buried in these 50-or-so unmarked graves a name and to provide some closure to surviving family members,” Nelson said.

While 31 metal crosses mark the "Boot Hill" cemetery on the Dozier grounds, the USF reseachers have identified at least 19 more grave shafts in areas outside the cemetery grounds. And while school records show 84 deaths were reported at the institution between 1911 and 1973, USF researchers found 98 deaths occurred there in that time period. The school closed in 2011 after decades of reports of abuse, torture and death.

Researchers recently received unanimous approval from Governor Rick Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet members to exhume the bodies. They'll have a one-year window to search the grounds for the reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys said to have died at the school between 1900 and 1952.

The Legislature had approved $190,000 dollars for research to determine the causes of death, identify remains, locate family members and pay for any re-burials.

The team will begin exhumations Saturday. The first phase of their work is expected to last until next Tuesday.


WASHINGTON –Today the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ) announced a $423,528 grant award to the University of South Florida (USF) to assist in the investigation of missing and unidentified children (ages 6-18 years) who died under unexplained circumstances and were buried in unmarked graves at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.

The objectives of this grant are to perform DNA testing and conduct forensic anthropological examinations of human remains for identification. The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification will perform all of the DNA analyses, compare the samples and enter that data into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

The project lead at USF is Dr. Erin Kimmerle. Dr. Kimmerle’s research is in the areas of international human rights and forensic anthropology. She created the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at USF and initiated the Tampa Bay Cold Case Project in which more than 80 local unsolved cases are being reanalyzed for human identification, including the application of newer methods such as 3D digitizing, isotope sampling and facial reconstructions.

The grant was awarded through NIJ’s 2013 competitive funding solicitation, “Using DNA Technology to Identify the Missing.” In recent years, newer DNA technologies have become available thanks in part to NIJ-funded research and development, which has contributed to the ability of crime laboratories to successfully analyze aged, degraded and compromised biological evidence.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP), headed by Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason, provides federal leadership in developing the nation’s capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist victims. OJP has six components: the Bureau of Justice Assistance; the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Institute of Justice; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the Office for Victims of Crime; and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. More information about OJP can be found at http://www.ojp.gov.

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