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Heart, brain missing from dead inmates' bodies, family lawsuit claims

Two men who died in Alabama prisons were returned to their families missing organs — one a heart and one a brain, according to a federal lawsuit.
Deceased inmate Brandon Clay Dotson is pictured.
Posted at 9:35 PM, Jan 12, 2024

Two inmates who died in Alabama prisons were missing internal organs when their bodies were returned to their families, a federal lawsuit claims.

Last month, the family of deceased inmate Brandon Clay Dotson sued the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and others claiming that their relative's body was returned to them "severely decomposed" and missing his heart. 

Then last week, court filings in support of Dotson's suit disclosed a similar allegation against the prison system, this time from the daughter of another deceased inmate, Charles Edward Singleton. Charlene Drake said her family similarly requested her father's body after his death, but when they received it, he was missing all of his internal organs, including his brain, the affidavit states.

Though these alleged incidents occurred two years apart, Lauren Faraino, an attorney representing Dotson's family, told The Associated Press the stories are "absolutely part of a pattern" within Alabama's prison system. 

"Alabama's prison system is characterized by cruelty," Faraino said in another statement to CNN. "We are now learning that the horrors do not end at death."

Singleton was 74 years old when he died in ADOC custody Nov. 2, 2021. Drake said she asked for her father's body to be transported to a funeral home, but upon arrival, the funeral director said it was unlikely his body could be prepared for viewing because it was "already in a noticeable state of decomposition" and void of all internal organs.

The family was told organs are usually put in a bag and returned to the body after an autopsy, but this did not happen in Singleton's case. 

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Then nearly two years later to the date, Dotson was found dead at Alabama's Ventress Correctional Facility on Nov. 16, 2023, the same day he was considered for parole release, his mother and daughter's lawsuit states. 

They claim the 43-year-old father's body was released to them nearly a week later — despite multiple earlier requests — in a decomposed state that indicated it hadn't been stored properly post mortem, according to a funeral director.

Suspecting foul play, Dotson's family hired a pathologist to perform a second autopsy. This doctor discovered his heart was missing from his chest cavity, while the family said they noticed bruising on the back of his neck and excessive swelling across his head. These conditions forced them to have a closed casket ceremony, the lawsuit states.

"Defendants' outrageous and inexcusable mishandling of the deceased's body

amounts to a reprehensible violation of human dignity and common decency," the lawsuit states. "Their depraved indifference in returning the body bereft of vital organs and in a revolting state of decay shows utter contempt for the deceased's memory and for the profound emotional distress wantonly inflicted upon the Plaintiff … Their appalling misconduct is nothing short of grave robbery and mutilation."

Dotson's lawsuit, with support of the Singleton family's experience, also lists the University of Alabama system as a defendant, alleging it has a history of using deceased inmates' organs for research and training. 

A member of Singleton's family told ABC 33/40 that the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Department of Pathology performed the autopsy on their relative. They claimed they requested the institution return the organs, but they haven't received them. 

The university provided a statement to CNN denying the claim regarding the school's use of the organs and said it did not perform Dotson's autopsy, though also saying it does provide the service within the state's correctional system, under strict policies.

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"We do not comment on pending litigation. We only conduct autopsies with consent or authorization and follow standard procedures equitably for anyone consented to or authorized for an autopsy," a spokesperson for the University of Alabama at Birmingham said. "In an autopsy, organs and tissues are removed to best determine the cause of death. Autopsy consent includes consent for final disposition of the organs and tissues; unless specifically requested, organs are not returned to the body."

A federal judge held a three-hour hearing in the Dotson lawsuit last week. According to AL.com, ADOC lawyers said Dotson's heart was inside his body when it left, and they don't know where it could be. 

The outlet said another person's testimony — that of Angelo Della Manna, the director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences — stated the Alabama Department of Forensics conducted Dotson's autopsy, but that he hadn't reviewed Dotson's case file.

Della Manna said that in any standard autopsy case, parts of an organ not returned to a body inside a biohazard bag would indicate it was sent off for further testing, which would be outlined in a person's case file and autopsy report. But the official said he couldn't name a reason why an entire organ wouldn't be put back into a body, the publication reported. 

The judge ordered the state to send her Dotson's case file and autopsy report, and in a statement to ABC 33/40, the ADOC said it was awaiting the court's next decision.