TALLAHASSEE — A circuit judge is rejecting a request to exhume human remains on the site of a now-defunct Panhandle reform school where an untold number of bodies were buried over a period of 60 years Judge William Wright, who is based in Jackson County, ruled Friday against the request made by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Her office filed the petition in March on behalf of Dr. Michael Hunter, the appointed medical examiner for the area. Bondi wanted permission to exhume bodies from “Boot Hill Cemetery” and surrounding areas, where it is believed there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted bodies of boys who died. The school, formally known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, was closed in 2011, largely for budget purposes. Wright stated that the case did not meet the “threshold” needed to grant the order and that researchers affiliated with the University of South Florida did not provide enough information about what physical evidence was likely to be found.
Wright stated that the medical examiner already has authority to inspect human remains, but he added that an order would not protect the state if it exhumes a body without giving due process to those whose family members are buried on the site. The judge also urged caution for Bondi and others at the end of his ruling, quoting a 1949 ruling that states that “quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed.” “I remain committed to assisting with the efforts to help resolve unanswered questions regarding deaths at the Dozier School for Boys,” Bondi said in a statement about the ruling. “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.” Bondi asked for the order in order to locate unidentified graves and human remains and conduct complete autopsies to determine the causes of death. The school, located in Marianna about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was once the nation's largest reform school, with 698 youths. A team of researchers from USF used historical documents to verify the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children — ranging in age from 6 to 18 — between 1914 and 1973. Records indicated that 45 individuals were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 while 31 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial. Death certificates and other records, media reports and interviews with former staff members and inmates showed some died from illness and accidents, including a 1914 dormitory fire that claimed the lives of six boys and two staff members who became trapped inside the building. Researchers said it would take approximately a year for the exhumations, autopsies, DNA testing, analysis and reporting to be completed. The school was plagued by scandal soon after it opened in 1900. Three years later, investigators found children “in irons, just as common criminals.” In the 1950s and early 1960s, boys were taken to a small building called The White House, where guards beat them for offenses as insignificant as singing or talking to a black inmate. The boys would be hit dozens of times — if not more — with a wide, three-foot long leather strap that had sheet metal stuffed in the middle. In 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed at state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk visited and found the institution in disrepair with leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cramped sleeping quarters, no winter heating and buckets used as toilets. Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout