A judge in Jackson County has denied a request for a court order permitting the exhumation of more than 50 unmarked graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, saying state law already gives a medical examiner authority to do so.
In an opinion issued Friday, Circuit Judge William Wright reasoned that the decision about whether to permit the exhumation is not for the court to make.
A state permit, under which University of South Florida anthropologists have operated as they try to pinpoint where the graves are and who might be buried in them, is enough for them to continue their work, the judge said. If they unearth human remains, the medical examiner would have the authority to investigate.
"Any further excavation by USF will be with state permission on state property," Wright wrote. "The medical examiner does not need a court order to carry out his statutory duties if human remains are found."
Wright noted that the exhumations should be done in pursuit of a possible criminal investigation — and not as just fishing expeditions.
At the end of his order, Wright urged officials to proceed with "caution" and quoted a 1949 case that says the "quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed."
The medical examiner for that part of the Panhandle, Dr. Michael Hunter, could not be reached Friday night to comment about what might happen next.
USF researchers have been using ground-penetrating radar to map the school's forgotten burial grounds. They have identified 50 possible graves; previous investigations found just 31. They also identified nearly 100 deaths that occurred at the school, using state records.
Erin Kimmerle, who has led USF's work, believes there may be another unmarked cemetery on the south side of the campus. She was recently granted additional state funding for ongoing efforts to find all the graves and to identify the remains. Sen. Bill Nelson also helped secure funding for the effort from the Department of Justice.
Attorney General Pam Bondi stepped into the fray in March, filing the petition with the circuit court asking permission to have Hunter exhume human remains from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and the surrounding areas. The petition asked that Hunter be allowed to investigate the clandestine graves for up to a year.
After the judge's decision Friday, it was unclear what the state's next step would be.
"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. "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."
Glenn Varnadoe of Lakeland, whose uncle Thomas Varnadoe died at the school in 1934 and is believed to be buried on the property, said he plans to meet with the attorney general's office to discuss the matter Tuesday in Tampa.
"Needless to say, I am not happy with the judge's decision," Varnadoe said. "I think the next step is to file for an exhumation of my uncle's remains."
In recent years, several hundred men have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, extreme beatings from school staff and tales of classmates who disappeared. Their claims have led to efforts by state officials and others to figure out just what went on at the Dozier School, which the Department of Juvenile Justice closed in 2011.
But local residents have fought against such efforts, trying to discredit the men and stop the exhumations in order to protect the reputation of area residents and those who ran the school.
Robert Straley of Clearwater, who as a child suffered beatings at the school in a dank building known as the White House, said Wright was trying to wash his hands of the situation.
"This is him weaseling out of it," Straley said. "He's caught between Pam Bondi and the people of Jackson County. He may want to be a judge again."
Straley said state officials knew they likely didn't need the court's permission but sought it anyway because of the level of opposition among residents in the area.
Straley said he has no sympathy for the residents of Jackson County and that people deserve to know the full extent of what happened in Marianna.
"This is not going to deter us at all," he said. "We want to see all of the boys found that it's possible to find."
Times staff writer Ben Montgomery contributed to this report.