Sen. Nelson rips governor for not exhuming graves at Dozier School for Boys

Published Dec. 12, 2014

TAMPA — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called out Gov. Rick Scott on Monday for saying the state doesn't have the legal standing to allow the exhumation of graves at the infamous Dozier School for Boys.

"This is a good example of the ridiculous stance that the state of Florida has taken," Nelson said, "and I believe this is under the direction of the governor."

The University of South Florida researchers who discovered numerous unmarked graves at the state-run reform school also sent a legal reply to Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Monday. Detzner issued last week's ruling, saying the state doesn't have the power to allow the unearthing of graves at Dozier. Guards spent decades abusing the troubled youth sent to live at the Panhandle reform school.

USF's response: The state definitely has that power. The Florida Legislature "has given the (Department of State) the power," to "excavate human remains," according to the opinion written by university attorney Gerard Solis.

The state's position that "human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes," was also refuted by the university.

"The purpose of USF's work at Dozier is not to excavate bodies for research as an academic end itself," read the university's letter, "but rather it is engaged research intended to locate unmarked human burials and identify any human remains so that those remains can be returned to their families."

USF wants a yes or no answer. If researchers get a yes, they'll exhume the human remains they "unexpectedly discovered" in January using ground-penetrating radar — graves found outside the school's small graveyard.

But if USF gets a no, then they can appeal that denial to an administrative judge. But first researchers need an answer other than that the state doesn't have the authority to give one.

"This a dodge by the state of Florida," Nelson said at a Monday news conference at Tampa International Airport. "The USF response to their denial to the permit to exhume the bodies has just made mincemeat out of the state's argument," he said. "This is all being run by the governor. He controls the Department of State. If they wanted to do it, that's all the governor would have to say.

"It is absolutely ridiculous that they are refusing for these families, who have lost a child and (their remains) are missing, to have closure."

The governor's office referred comment to the secretary of state's office, which could not be reached for comment late Monday.

If Scott doesn't act, Nelson said, then he will consider asking the U.S. Department of Justice to somehow intervene: "I'm not gonna let this one go."

Nelson was at the airport to spotlight the new Global Entry program, which allows international travelers to pass through customs within minutes. The Democrat also addressed whether he would consider running against Scott, a Republican, in the 2014 governor's race:

"I have no plans to run for governor. I have no intention of running for governor."

But the senator said he does expect Florida Democrats to put up a strong challenger.

"I expect this governor to be a one-term governor," Nelson said.