A disturbing situation is gradually unfolding in Jackson, Mississippi: Families say their loved ones were buried without their knowledge and they are now required to pay to get control of the remains.
Near the Hinds County Penal Farm, in a place called the "paupers' field," there are about 672 graves. There are no headstones. They are only marked by numbers.
Authorities typically bury unclaimed or unidentified bodies in paupers' cemeteries, and in this case, there's a record with 14 pages that note details like age, race, gender, birth, death dates, and where they were before being buried. This log goes back to at least 2008, according to Hinds County Coroner data.
But among those 672 bodies, there is a list of 215 burials spanning from 2016 to 2023 for which the families of the deceased say were never notified — information that came to light after an investigation by NBC News.
Now, civil rights attorney Ben Crump is advocating for justice on behalf of the relatives and friends of the individuals buried in the paupers' cemetery. He is representing six family members, and more pending, who say they were never informed of their relatives' deaths.
"Obviously, we're seeing a pattern in practice, negligence, and worse, unconstitutional and criminal activities,” Crump told Scripps News. “It’s just horrific that they put them in the ground in a bag in the first place, but it’s even worse when people are trying to ask you to assist and you won't assist them in locating their loved one even though they're in the back of your jail.”
Last month, families of three men buried near the detention center without their knowledge came forward and hired Crump, determined to find answers from those responsible.
Gretchen Hankins only found out about her son's death and burial a year and seven months after she reported him missing.
Her son, 39-year-old Jonathan David Hankins, was reported missing to the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office in July 2022; the department even posted pictures of him on Facebook. Crump, who is now the family’s attorney, says David was buried in the paupers' grave in 2022, but the family only learned about that in 2023.
“They said they were looking, but they weren’t looking too hard," Gretchen Hankins told CNN. “I want them to lose their jobs because they didn’t do their job."
In 2023, Bettersten Wade spent seven months searching for her son, Dexter Wade, before discovering he had been killed and buried.
Dexter, 37, went missing on March 5, and despite Bettersten reporting him missing, Jackson police failed to inform her that he had been fatally struck by a police car less than an hour after leaving home. The police, aware of Dexter's identity, neglected to contact Bettersten, leaving his body unclaimed for months. Bettersten found his body in grave No. 672.
“It’s very suspicious why they didn’t notify her. She was calling them on a regular basis; all she wanted was for them to file a simple alert for a missing person, and they wouldn’t. All that time she spent looking for him, and they couldn’t just notify her,” Crump said, adding that the families simply want justice and answers.
The third family that has publicly come forward is that of 40-year-old Marrio Moore.
Moore was found dead, wrapped in a tarp, on Feb. 2, 2023. His death was ruled a homicide due to "blunt force" to the head. He was later buried on July 14. However, Moore's family wasn't notified by the police or the coroner's office; they learned about his death in October when his name appeared on a list of undisclosed homicide victims published by WLBT.
"The message is very simple: We have to be able to exhume and identify all of these individuals because they had a mother and father, a son or daughter, or a relative who loved them and needs to know whether their loved one is still missing or if their loved one is one of these 215 dead people behind the Hinds County Jail," Crump said.
Now, the challenge for these families is that, as the state is handling the burials, the bodies are deemed "state property." To retrieve the bodies, some families are required to pay fees ranging from $250-$750, covering the cost of both the death certificate and the body.
Scripps News made several attempts to contact county and city officials for more information but was unsuccessful in reaching them.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to reflect that the graves were not completely unmarked. They feature numbers, just not tombstones, and they were not recently discovered. This was a known cemetery where unidentified individuals were buried. What's in dispute is whether families were notified.
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