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Is There Another Reason The State Denied USF Request To Exhume Bodies At Dozier?

University of South Florida

The University of South Florida is awaiting a response from the state about whether the school’s researchers can dig up the human remains of boys believed to have died over a 60-year period at the infamous Dozier School for Boys in north Florida. State officials contend they don’t have the authority to grant such a request, but some wonder if that’s the real reason for the denial.

Last year, the University of South Florida researchers received approval from the state to use what’s called “ground penetrating radar” to discover about 50 unmarked graves located at Boot Hill Cemetery—the site linked to the now-closed Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

After discovering, through 3D images, the human remains below ground, lead USF researcher Erin Kimmerle says their next step was to apply for a permit with archeological excavation. A judge denied that request in May, citing lack of evidence. But in his briefing, he said the state could act without a court order. So, Kimmerle says the researchers applied to the Department of State’s Bureau of Archeological Research for another permit—this time allowing them to excavate the site.

"...from the state's perspective...there may be some concern perhaps there are more recent bodies."

“Then, after waiting for the Division to respond to that, the Secretary of State issued a letter, saying it’s actually not within his authority,” said Kimmerle.

USF disagreed with the state, and the university sent another request to Secretary of State Ken Detzner asking him to reconsider his denial or petition a judge to intervene.

In his initial letter denying the request, Detzner claimed researchers changed their aims.  He says the initial goal was historic preservation, but now the researchers have, in his words, “diverged” from that purpose.

He also cited Florida law saying human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes.  That irked U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who’s pushed for investigating the alleged abuse at the Panhandle school. Defending what he calls the researchers true aim, Nelson says Governor Rick Scott should personally authorize the state to allow researchers to return the remains to the families affected.

“If the Governor really wanted to do this, it would be done. Saying that the Department of State does not have jurisdiction, that’s just an excuse to sidestep and not take accountability. The families deserve the answers. Indeed, the Department of State under law has the authority to exhume graves under the state archeologist that are more than 75 years old. Obviously, a number of those graves are greater than 75 years. So, exercise that authority,” said Nelson, on a recent conference call.

USF researchers have verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children at the Dozier School between 1914 and 1973. But, Florida State University College of Law Professor Franita Tolson says the state could be concerned it’ll be slapped with a lawsuit if it grants the permit request to exhume the bodies.

“One thing the state may be thinking about, though, is there may have been allegations of abuse up until the school closed in 2011. So, it seems to be that there may be some concern perhaps there are more recent bodies. So, it seems to me  from the state’s perspective, they have to be somewhat concerned about the dating because we won’t know for sure until the bodies come out of the ground,” said Tolson.

But she says it could be hard to bring a lawsuit against the state given the about 60-year-span the boys are believed to have died -- unless the families can prove the boys were murdered, which would lift any statute of limitations. She adds in addition, the families could then bring suit if they can prove the state was involved in a cover-up.

“It is unlikely the families will have a cause of action against the state, unless they could somehow prove the state is involved in an ongoing conspiracy to conceal the death or something like that—which under that argument, they’d be able to withhold the statute of limitations,” added Tolson.

But, she says one argument that cuts against the conspiracy theory is the fact the state did its own investigation, even though it was later determined that the USF researchers found more unmarked graves than the state’s investigators.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Detzner’s office says the Secretary is still in the process of reviewing the school’s latest request.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.