The brother of two sisters who were among the 11 killed by the Philadelphia police in the bombing of the MOVE group’s West Philadelphia home in 1985, has demanded city officials release their remains so he can have a proper burial for them.
“They are my sisters. They are my immediate family,” Lionell Dotson Sr., said at a news conference outside City Hall last week. “They took them from me. They are holding them like they are trophies. I am asking Mayor (Jim) Kenney to release them to me and do it expeditiously. This city is in a great deal of debt to me and we want them to pay up.”
Dotson, 45, of Fayetteville, N.C., is the brother of Katricia and Zanetta Dotson. Katricia was 14 at the time of her death and Zanetta was 12. He is being represented by prominent civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers, and Philadelphia lawyer Daniel P. Hartstein. The attorneys said all legal options are open, but a lawsuit is likely.
“Black folks in this country don’t get the benefit of their humanity,” Sellers said. “The city of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania have carried out an injustice that has lasted more than three decades. The lack of attention, the disrespect shown by this City Hall, the city of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania for this family is something that should make your stomach turn and it should make you purely outraged.”
The story of how the remains of Dotson’s sisters came into the custody of the Medical Examiner’s office and the University of Pennsylvania, instead of the family, is bizarre.
It was brought to light by news media reports in April 2021. Weeks later, the city Medical Examiner’s office admitted that his office had remains of Katricia and Zanetta Dotson. But Thomas Farley, former Philadelphia health commissioner had claimed that he ordered them destroyed in 2017, without the permission of their family. Farley was later fired.
Consuewella Dotson, who was also known as Consuewella Africa, the mother of the Dotsons died in June 2021.
For his part, Sellers alleged that the remains have been put on display, used in classes by Penn, which ultimately profited from them.
“Their remains have been desecrated. The remains have been prostituted by the University of Pennsylvania and it’s as if the mayor of this great city and the city of Philadelphia simply do not care,” Sellers said. “So I am here to hopefully bring some justice. I am here today to fight for Lionell and his family.”
On May 13, 1985, a shootout between MOVE, a back-to-nature group and city police resulted in police dropping a bomb from a helicopter on the group’s home on Osage Avenue. The ensuing fire was allowed to burn out of control and killed 11 people, including five children. One adult and one child who lived in the MOVE house survived. At least 60 homes over two blocks were destroyed.
The confrontation was preceded by complaints by neighbors to the city for years about trash around MOVE’s home, confrontations with MOVE members, and bullhorn announcements of political messages by MOVE members.
“The City of Philadelphia recognizes and appreciates the frustration, trauma and pain Mr. Dotson and other surviving family members feel regarding the MOVE bombing. This is in part why the City has commissioned an investigation and public report regarding the chain of custody of the MOVE remains, examination of the Medical Examiner Office’s practices, and recommendations to the MEO through a racial equity lens,” Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said in a statement.
“The City is working on a way to appropriately return all remains once that report is complete, and the City has identified the next of kin for the MOVE remains it has in its possession. Mr. Dotson and his attorney have previously been made aware of the City’s plan to appropriately return the remains,” Lessard said.
A report by the Tucker Law Group examined how the remains of those killed in the 1985 police bombing came to be in Penn’s custody and were subsequently used in a 2019 online course hosted by Princeton University. That report concluded Penn forensic anthropologists Alan Mann and Janet Monge did not “violate any professional, ethical, or legal standards,” but said that their actions “demonstrated at a minimum, poor judgment and insensitivity.”
“I have been committed to reuniting the human remains from the 1985 bombing with the MOVE family members as quickly as possible and worked in close consultation with the Africa mothers,” Christopher Woods, the Williams Director of Penn Museum, said in a statement.
“In accordance with their wishes, any known MOVE remains connected to the Museum were reunited with the Africa family in July 2021. Two independent investigations have been conducted, which considered the identity of the human remains inside the Museum,” Woods said. We are fully cooperating with a third investigation commissioned by the City of Philadelphia, which is expected to conclude soon.”
Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.