Families of dead inmates Brandon Clay Dotson and Charles Edward Singleton say their hearts were removed before the bodies were given back to them for burial.
November 16, 2023, was the day Brandon Clay Dotson was considered for parole release. Instead, that Thursday, the 43-year-old was found dead inside an Alabama prison, his cause of death undeterminable because his heart was removed while in the state’s custody, according to a civil complaint filed in the Northern District of Alabama’s United States District Court the following month.
Dotson’s family “suspected foul play” led to his death at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton, Ala., per the federal complaint obtained by University, so they requested a second autopsy by a private pathologist. (The first autopsy has still not been provided to the family, their lawyer tells University.)
That’s when Dr. Boris Datnow “discovered that the heart was missing from the chest cavity of Mr. Dotson’s body,” per the complaint.
The complaint lists dozens of defendants – among them Alabama’s Department of Corrections, Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and the University of Alabama at Birmingham – alleging that they are “engaging in the illegal, reprehensible and outrageous conduct of retaining organs and tissues from incarcerated individuals who die in state custody without the consent of their family, next of kin, or representatives as required by law.” The state’s Department of Corrections contracts out to the university for some of its autopsies.
Lauren Faraino, who represents Dotson’s mother and sister as the plaintiffs, authored the civil complaint.
“Alabama’s prison system is characterized by cruelty,” Faraino tells University in an interview. “From the moment a person enters the Alabama Department of Corrections, they are thrown into a lawless world of beatings, rapes, drugs and extortion. No other prison in the United States comes close to Alabama’s in terms of violence, suicides and overdoses. We are now learning that the horrors do not end at death.”
In the complaint, Faraino wrote Dotson’s incarceration was “tantamount to a death sentence.”
In 2022, more than 260 incarcerated people died in Alabama custody -– up from just seven people in nine months in 2015, per the complaint. It was the deadliest year in the state’s corrections history, with death rates similarly paced by the year’s end in 2023 when Dotson died. The complaint attributed the rise in deaths to the “violent consequences from prison overcrowding and understaffing.”
Faraino tells University Magazine that the state of Alabama has fallen into a pattern of “abusing the corpses of those who die in prison custody,” saying the practice of unauthorized organ removal dates back years.
Last week, Charlene Drake filed a letter to the court obtained by University Magazine, saying that the corpse of her father, Charles Edward Singleton — who died in custody in November 2021 — had been similarly treated.
“He still had his eyes,” Drake wrote, recalling the state of her father’s body when it arrived at the funeral home. “But all other organs were gone.”
Drake said in the January 3 letter to the court that the warden had never contacted her to approve of the removal of her father’s organs.
University contacted lawyers listed for all the named defendants in the federal complaint. (Only a representative of the University of Alabama at Birmingham responded by the end of the day Thursday. In court filings, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences denied any wrongdoing. Alabama’s Department of Corrections has not yet responded to the court.)
In an email, university spokesperson Tyler Greer told University Magazine the school had not performed Mr. Dotson’s initial autopsy “and has not been involved with this matter.”
When asked if the school had conducted Singleton’s autopsy, as his daughter had claimed in a signed letter to the court, Greer responded: “We do not comment on pending litigation.”
Greer said that the university is among providers in the state that “conduct autopsies of incarcerated persons at the direction of the State of Alabama” and that following the autopsy, “unless specifically requested, organs are not returned to the body.”
Greer additionally noted that “a panel of medical ethicists reviewed and endorsed our protocols regarding autopsies conducted for incarcerated persons.”
In 2018, an ethics oversight committee met to discuss the university’s practices after medical students there raised concerns about the “disproportionate number” of organs they were examined from the bodies of incarcerated individuals compared to civilian populations, per the complaint.
In a PowerPoint the students presented to school officials – reviewed by University and an exhibit filed to the case – the students noted that “the benefits” of the medical research that was being conducted on the bodies of incarcerated people “are not distributed equally to incarcerated individuals.”
The students submitted a series of suggestions to school officials, among them noting that: “organs obtained without consent from the patient or their family should be returned to family members” and that the school “should set a higher internal standard that organs are not retained unless given with informed consent from the patient or their families.”
The committee responded in September 2018 that the school’s “current fashion” of conducting autopsies remained “ethically permissible,” per the committee’s documented response, which was also made a part of the court record and reviewed by University.
Although the University of Alabama Birmingham says that Dotson’s autopsy was not conducted by them – an assertion that Faraino says “may be the case,” the state’s other authorized autopsy-conducting institutions would likely follow the same accredited protocols outlined by Greer and which do not require them to return the organs removed from inmates during autopsies.
When Dotson’s family saw him lying in his casket, per the complaint, they noticed “bruising on the back of Mr. Dotson’s neck and excessive swelling across his head.”
“The stench of his body,” which had not been properly stored in the nearly a week between his death and the family receiving his body, “was overwhelming,” per the complaint.
“To date, no one has explained to the family why Mr. Dotson’s heart was missing when his body was turned over to them,” the complaint states, adding that the family still “do not know where Mr. Dotson’s heart currently is, or in whose possession.”