11th Circuit Hears Case of Missing Human Remains

A mother whose daughter was murdered asked 11th Circuit judges on Thursday to revive her lawsuit against medical examiners who kept most of the teen’s remains for years.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) — Thirty-six years ago, Mary Lakoskey buried the remains of her murdered daughter, along with a white stuffed cat, in a shady cemetery nestled between a busy interstate and Jacksonville’s iconic river.

After a mental breakdown and brief hospitalization, she moved to Minnesota and attempted to heal her heartache. Those wounds reopened in 2017 when Lakoskey learned a Florida medical examiner’s office still had most of her daughter’s remains.

On Thursday, Lakoskey’s attorney asked an 11th Circuit panel to reinstate a federal lawsuit that accuses the District 4 Medical Examiner’s Office, three doctors and a forensic anthropologist of unlawfully shuffling the bones of Tina Lovett between the medical examiner’s office and two universities without notifying the family.

“There was no legitimate law enforcement purpose for them to hold onto the remains,” Jesse Wilkison told the three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court.

In May 1984, police found the naked, badly decomposed body of 17-year-old Lovett on a dirt road in an uninhabited area of Jacksonville. She had been missing for more than two weeks.

According to court documents, the medical examiner at the time, Dr. Bonifacio Floro, determined Lovett was murdered, but could not establish the exact cause of death. After his investigation, Floro released some of the remains, including the bones of the legs and feet, to a funeral home for burial. Floro did not tell Lakoskey that the rest of Lovett’s bones – skull, ribcage and femur – remained at the medical examiner’s office.

Police arrested a suspect in connection with Lovett’s death, but charges were dropped. He later died in a car accident. For the next eight years, Floro kept the uninterred remains of Lovett until transferring them to a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida.

Lovett’s bones sat at the university for eight years until transferred back to the medical examiner’s office, which was then headed by Dr. Margarita Arruza. In 2005, Lovett’s bones were sent to the anthropologist again, Heather Walsh-Haney, who worked as a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

In 2016, Walsh-Haney sent the bones back to the medical examiner’s office. Dr. Valerie Rao kept them for another year until informing Lakoskey the office still possessed her daughter’s uninterred remains.

Lakoskey reburied Lovett in 2017. Two years later, she filed suit in Jacksonville federal court, alleging the constitutional right to her daughter’s remains and violation of a 1998 Florida law that prohibits medical examiners from keeping remains for research or other non-law enforcement purposes without notifying the next-of-kin.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Bria Davis ruled the medical examiners and anthropologist were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects government employees from lawsuits arising from their duties, and dismissed the case.

During Thursday’s oral arguments before the 11th Circuit, held via teleconference due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wilkison argued the medical examiners had a duty release Lovett’s remains after the criminal investigation into her death ended

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert Luck, a recent Donald Trump appointee, quickly jumped into the discussion.

“Isn’t [Floro] authorized to perform and to hold onto whatever he needs in order to do the investigation, examinations and autopsies as he deems necessary?” Luck asked.

“If that’s what he was performing, then we’d have a different case,” Wilkison said, adding the medical examiners held onto the remains long after finishing those duties and the state had given up on prosecution. 

“Where does it allege that he’s given up?” Luck countered. “A problem appears to be the statute does not say ‘as objectively necessary’ but ‘as he shall deem necessary’ meaning it’s the subjective option of the medical examiner.”

After the initial examination, keeping Lovett’s bones served “no lawful purpose,” said Wilkison of the Jacksonville firm Sheppard, White, Kachergus and DeMaggio.

“This was not a situation where he just sent it in for a test that needed to be done in accordance with the autopsy that had long been completed,” the attorney added. “This is a situation where he sent them to the University of Florida to perform a test, got the results back in 1992 and allowed them to retain it for an additional eight years.”

Luck demurred: “Just because there was no investigation of the murder at the time doesn’t mean the investigation was closed. A murder is a murder, forever.”

Tiffany Pinkstaff, representing the District 4 Medical Examiner’s Office and the three doctors, argued all the medical examiners were acting “within their discretionary authority” and are protected by qualified immunity.

Pinkstaff also questioned whether federal property rights laws are applicable to the case. If the remains were disposed of or damaged, she argued, there could be a tort claim.

“The body was ultimately turned over to the family members by Dr. Rao,” Pinkstaff said. “There’s a difference between the right to possess for the purposes of burial and a constitutionally protected property right.”

Luck was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Ed Carnes, a George H.W. Bush appointee, and Elizabeth Branch, another Trump appointee. It is unclear when the judges will issue a decision in the case.

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