Friday, May 24, 2013

Judge Denies Petition to Exhume Graves at Dozier School

Dozier School Cemetery
Judge William Wright of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit as denied a petition from Dr. Michael Hunter, Medical Examiner, for an order to exhume the graves at the Dozier School Cemetery.

The filing was entered late this afternoon. Please click here to read the entire ruling.

According to the order, the petition as prepared and filed on Dr. Hunter's behalf by the Attorney General's office, does not provide evidence that meets the threshold required in a civil matter.

In addition, Wright cautioned the Medical Examiner and Attorney General's office that procedures for the relocation of graves already are in place in Florida, but that they should be very aware of previous court rulings that the "sanctity of the grave is sacred."

At issue is the small cemetery at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The cemetery itself is marked by a memorial, but the individual graves do not have headstones. While some have claimed that the cemetery contains the graves of individuals murdered by staff members at the school, the Medical Examiner and Attorney General's office both indicated in a recent court filing that they did not consider the exhumation of the graves to be part of a criminal investigation.

To support their request to exhume the graves, the petitioners filed with the court a copy of an interim report on the the cemetery prepared by the University of South Florida. Judge Wright today ruled that the report did not meet the level of evidence needed in a civil matter:

In this case, the Interim Report [i.e. USF] does not meet the threshold for an order allowing exhumation or autopsy in a civil case because it does not indicate what physical evidence is reasonably expected to be found or how it may prove the cause of death or the identity of the remains, and the family members have not been afforded due process because many of those persons have not been identified or contacted.

The judge also pointed out that while the Medical Examiner had requested an order so he would be protected from lawsuits, such an exhumation order would not, in fact, protect him:

...If there is a possibility of tort liability or a violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, an order from the Court granting the Petition will not protect the Medical Examiner from claims by persons with standing who have not been made parties to this action or who have not been afforded the due process rights of notice and opportunity to be heard.

He concluded by cautioning the State to "proceed with caution and pay heed to Currier v. Woodlawn Cemetery" which states:

"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 decision by Judge Wright places the responsibility for any further action squarely on the shoulders of the Medical Examiner and State Archaeologist and concludes that state officials had produced no evidence that would indicate the condition of the remains, whether a cause of death could be determined or whether it would even be possible to identify which individual was buried in which grave.

The Board of County Commissioners of Jackson County had intervened in the case to request that families with loved ones buried in the cemetery be notified before the graves were exhumed. The judge apparently agreed, ruling that failing to notify ALL families with loved ones buried at the cemetery before exhuming bodies would violate the due process rights of those families.


Max Basford said...

I commend Judge Wright for his decision. As a former employee of the old Florida Industrial School I felt that the suggestions of wrong-doing at the school accused me by association, and I knew of no such actions during my tenure there. This ruling vindicates the many who might feel victims of such false accusations.

Dale Cox said...

Thank you Max!
Let me mention that anyone is welcome to comment here, regardless of their point of view, so long as they identify themselves and participate in civil discussion. Anonymous comments, slander, threats, etc., will not be posted.