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215 people have been buried behind a Mississippi jail since 2016, attorney says

Hundreds of people are buried in numbered graves in a pauper's graveyard near the Hinds County Detention Center and Hinds County Penal Farm. Families say their loved ones were buried there without notice.
Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
Hundreds of people are buried in numbered graves in a pauper's graveyard near the Hinds County Detention Center and Hinds County Penal Farm. Families say their loved ones were buried there without notice.

Families of people who were buried in a pauper's field next to the Hinds County Penal Farm near Jackson, Miss., are calling for a federal investigation into the burials, which took place without families being notified. With their attorney now saying the field holds hundreds more graves, the families want a full accounting of the bodies buried there.

The issue became national news last fall, when several families said they had waited months to hear about a missing loved one — only to learn their relative had died months earlier, and were buried in a grassy field, their graves marked only by a metal tag bearing a number. Their attorney, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, says he believes many more people were buried under similar circumstances.

"We know, based on the records from the coroner's office, that, since 2016, in the last eight years, we can identify 215 individuals that were buried behind that jail, and their families have not been notified," Crump told PBS NewsHour this week.

When NPR contacted officials in Jackson to ask about Crump's allegation, Melissa Faith Payne, the city's director of communications, said the bodies were buried in a pauper's graveyard managed by Hinds County.

"It is not a secret burial ground," she said. "In those graves are the bodies of those who went unclaimed by family when they died. These persons are either homeless people, inmates from local jails who died but relatives never claimed their bodies, unidentified persons who officials were never able to connect with family, or even persons who died" whose families couldn't afford a funeral.

A mother's grief drew wide attention last fall

Last October, Bettersten Wade told NBC News the anguishing story of how, months after she filed a missing persons report about her son, Dexter Wade, she was finally told that her son was dead at age 37. The police also told her that county officials had buried him in the local pauper's field, she said.

Police investigators said Dexter Wade had been struck and killed by an SUV driven by an off-duty Jackson Police Department officer on Interstate 55, just hours after his mother last saw him. The police report said Wade was on foot at the time.

"The accident was investigated and it was determined that it was in fact an accident and that there was no malicious intent," Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said last October.

But, Lumumba added, officials had failed to inform the Wade family. "There was a lack of communication with the missing persons division, the coroner's office, and [the police department's] accident investigation" unit, he said.

By the time Bettersten Wade learned her son's fate, she had spent months looking for him, contacting police in Jackson, giving them potential leads and asking for any updates about where her son might be. She also asked for help on social media to find him.

"I just couldn't believe that he had disappeared off the face of Earth and nobody knows where" he was, she told NewsHour.

It turned out that Dexter Wade had a prescription medicine bottle with his name on it in his pocket when he died. Within days of his death, the Hinds County Coroner's office was able to confirm his identity and share that information with police. But somehow, Jackson police were unable to inform Wade's mother until last August.

Questions persist over burials

When Wade's family finally recovered his body, their attorney said that an independent examination found that the jeans he was buried in held a wallet, which contained his state ID, a credit card and other identifying information.

"The fact that Dexter had a state identification card and several other identifying items shows us that there was a concerted effort to keep the truth and manner of his death from his family," Crump said, according to member station Mississippi Public Broadcasting. "There is no excuse, not even incompetence, for not notifying a next of kin of an identified man's death."

Since the Wade family struggled to find Dexter, Payne said, the Jackson Police Department has changed its policy to improve how it informs a deceased person's next-of-kin.

At least two other families are known to have been informed they have relatives buried in the field. In the case of a man named Marrio Moore, 40, the lag in communication was compounded by another issue: the Jackson Police Department's initial failure to disclose more than 20 homicides that took place over the course of 2023. In October, when the agency finally released the names of people who had been killed, Moore's family was shocked to see his name on the list — and to learn he had been killed on Feb. 2, and buried in the same field as Dexter Wade.

"It is tragic to suffer the consequences of having to bury your child before you perish," Lumumba said last fall. "But to add insult to that trauma, it is even more difficult to not have the ability to have a proper burial for your child."

The mayor said his administration regrets what the Wade family endured. At the same time, he emphasized that an investigation did not reveal police misconduct or malicious intent.

But weeks after that statement, the Wade family was confronted with another hardship, when Dexter Wade's remains were finally exhumed from the pauper's grave.

Hinds County officials had informed Bettersten Wade that her son's body would be exhumed and transferred to a funeral home on Nov. 13, in a process that would begin at 11:30 a.m. After months of uncertainty, the event promised a moment of closure. But as Mississippi Public Broadcasting reported, when Wade arrived at the field, she learned her son's body had been dug up hours earlier, at 8 a.m.

"As Dexter's body was transferred from the coroner's SUV to the funeral home's van, Bettersten stared blankly into the black bag holding her son's remains and asked why they couldn't have at least buried him in a box," MPB reported.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.