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Old wounds reopen after report details mishandling of remains of MOVE bombing victims

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Last year, news broke that the city of Philadelphia and local universities had mishandled the remains of people who were killed during the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. An investigation into why that happened has opened old wounds, and it leaves many questions unanswered. From member station WHYY, here's Kenny Cooper.

KENNY COOPER, BYLINE: It has been 37 years since the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on a home where the Black liberation group MOVE was based.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

COOPER: The Philadelphia Fire Department let the resulting blaze engulf 61 homes. Eleven people, including five children, died. Lionell Dotson's two sisters, Katricia and Zanetta, were among them.

LIONELL DOTSON: For some reason, the city won't let me put it to an end.

COOPER: The MOVE bombing devastated Dotson's family. He has since moved away from Philadelphia to North Carolina.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University were reported to have withheld and studied the remains of child victims without the families' knowledge. The city's medical examiner's office was also in hot water for the mishandling of a separate box of MOVE remains. Philadelphia's top health official resigned, and the city tapped two outside law firms to lead an investigation into what went wrong. That independent report arrived in June. Though it had a huge scope, there were limitations. Several key witnesses refused to cooperate. Dotson says it didn't offer any revelations.

DOTSON: I feel like even in their death, there's no peace.

COOPER: For example, the report failed to explain why the medical examiner's office chose not to release the remains to family members. But it did find the initial 1985 investigation into the scene to be grossly inadequate and biased. Keir Bradford-Grey served as one of the outside attorneys leading the investigation.

KEIR BRADFORD-GREY: I think that this is so important to understand the role that each governmental agency played in either covering up or not really reporting truthfully and ethically what happened so that the families still cannot get the justice that they feel that they were denied.

COOPER: One of the main report recommendations was that the city change the manners of death to homicides.

CHERYL BETTIGOLE: We do agree with that recommendation. These are not folks who died by accident; these are people who were killed.

COOPER: Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole says the report is a road map forward. But she cautioned that some recommendations, like having forensic investigators on site at every homicide, might be out of reach due to staffing limitations. She says what is most important at this time is an apology.

BETTIGOLE: Our medical examiner's office should never have run that way. I really want to apologize to the families of the victims because this is incredibly traumatic for them.

COOPER: In a statement announcing the report, Mayor Jim Kenney said that he is hopeful that it provides closure to family members. Bakari Sellers is one of the lawyers representing Dotson's family. He says the disregard for the remains of Black life made his skin crawl and motivated him to get involved. Now he's exploring who might be liable.

BAKARI SELLERS: Not only were these individuals targeted, of course, in the MOVE bombing, but their remains were treated with such disrespect by all involved.

COOPER: While the city has begun having conversations with the families about returning the remaining human body parts once they are all identified, Dotson says 37 years is long enough. His sisters need to be laid to rest.

DOTSON: Tell the city to just fess up and release my sisters' remains already. That hurts. I want my sisters. I'm sorry, but it hurts (crying).

COOPER: His attorneys believe that egregious civil rights violations have been committed.

For NPR News, I'm Kenny Cooper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Cooper