TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Bar Association on Thursday bestowed its prestigious 2017 Liberty Bell Award on Erin Kimmerle, the forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida who led efforts to unearth remains from the Dozier School for Boys and return them to families.
The award "recognizes an outstanding non-lawyer citizen whose community service strengthens the effectiveness of the American system under the law."
Kimmerle, 44, led a team of researchers that in 2012 mapped a cemetery at the state's oldest reform school and turned up more burials than school records indicated. The team then exhumed the remains of 51 individuals, 20 more than state investigators said were there. Those that could be identified have been returned to families; the rest will be reinterred alongside a proper memorial marker.
"Dr. Kimmerle is a local treasure," said Mark Buell of Buell & Elligett, "whose work has promoted greater respect for the law and a deeper sense of individual responsibility to the end that citizens recognize the duty of their state to come clean about actual facts from an embarrassing period during our state's history."
Kimmerle was threatened and harassed while seeking to learn how boys died at the brutal school near Marianna, 60 miles west of Tallahassee, which opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. She has since been featured in television documentaries and called a "real-life Temperance Brennan" by a national magazine, a reference to the fictional character on the Fox television show Bones.
"As an anthropologist, my favorite historic lawyer has to be Clarence Darrow," Kimmerle said upon receiving the award before hundreds of banqueting lawyers at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. She then quoted the celebrated lawyer: "As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever."
Past Liberty Bell winners in Hillsborough County include Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, George Steinbrenner, Tony Dungy and former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor.
Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Co. and chairman of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, won this year's Liberty Bell Award in Pinellas County.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.