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Area lawmakers, Dozier survivor pitch Pasco forensics lab to Rick Scott

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Legislators from Pasco County urged Gov. Rick Scott Monday to approve legislation authorizing construction of a $4.3 million criminal forensics laboratory there that would attack the state’s 16,000-case backlog of unsolved murders.

“This is not about Pasco County. This is about the entire state,” Sen. Wilton Simpson said. The project would “greatly expand law enforcement’s ability as it relates to terrorism and as it relates to cold cases,” he said.

“This project is going to change lives, and it’s going to provide so much closure to those who have been suffering so long without it,” Rep. Danny Burgess said.

Part of the inspiration for the program was the investigation into abuses at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Erin Kimmerle, whose Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at the University of South Florida helped uncover much of that history, will help run the new center.

The center would be one of seven such facilities in the nation, and would conduct investigations and train law enforcement officers and students. It would be named after Thomas Varnadoe, who died in Dozier at age 13 in 1934.

“What the Dozier example shows is is that time isn’t our greatest challenge — it’s capacity and will,” Kimmerle said.

“Sixteen thousand cases — if you solve 50 of those, that may seem like so little,” said Robert Straley, a Dozier survivor. “But to the families that are going through this … something like this will help immensely.”

Jeff Peake, a major in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the facility would provide research, forensic services and “cutting-edge” training for investigating murders and terrorist attacks.

Beyond that, “this facility will allow answers — long-awaiting answers — for the family members of cold-case victims throughout the state of Florida,” Peake added.

This is probably the biggest thing the Legislature has done for law enforcement in my recollection,” former Pasco Sheriff Bob White said.

“You go to a murder scene, the first people you want to see are your crime scene techs. Well, this facility, Dr. Kimberly and her team, will have the ability to provide premium training — world-wide training — to all of our crime scene techs in the state of Florida,” he said.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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