Attorneys for the family of 43-year-old Brandon Clay Dotson, who would have been eligible for parole on the day of his death, say that Alabama corrections officials have yet to determine what happened to the man’s missing heart.
An Alabama inmate’s family has filed a lawsuit against the state’s corrections system, claiming that Brandon Clay Dotson’s body was returned badly decomposed and without a heart.
According to AL.com, Dotson was found dead at Ventress Correctional Facility on November 16. Dotson was, at the time of his death, serving a 99-year sentence for a burglary conviction and related parole violation.
A warden reached out to Dotson’s brother the same evening. Although the Doston family tried to claim the 43-year-old man’s body immediately, it was held by the prison pending the outcome of an autopsy.
Five days later, after the state had completed the procedure, Dotson’s body was released to Dr. Boris Datnow, a pathologist hired by Dotson’s mother.
“Upon conducting the autopsy, Dr. Datnow discovered that the heart was missing from the chest cavity of Mr. Dotson’s body,” says the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Dotson’s estate. “The Alabama Department of Corrections—or an agent responsible for conducting the autopsy or transporting the body to his family—had, inexplicably and without the required permission from Mr. Dotson’s next-of-kin, removed and retained Mr. Dotson’s heart.”
Lauren Faraino, a Birmingham-based attorney with experience investigation corrections-related misconduct, said that Dotson’s cause of death has yet to be determined.
“The autopsy that [Department of Corrections] has done usually takes about three months to be released and the autopsy that the family had done privately could not be completed because the heart was missing,” Faraino told The Moulton Advertiser.
“The heart is a vital organ that would provide critical evidence in assessing the case of death,” the lawsuit states. “Without the heart, Plaintiff cannot obtain an accurate and complete determination of the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s death.”
Although Dotson’s heart has not yet been located, his relatives believe that it may have been given—without permission—to the University of Alabama-Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine for research purposes.
“In the midst of grieving Brandon Dotson’s untimely death, his family is having to fight to get the most basic answers about how he died, and why the Alabama Department of Corrections returned his body without his heart,” Faraino said. “At this time, we do not know where the heart is.”
The lawsuit indicates that, in the days before Dotson’s death, he had repeatedly asked corrections officials for help, saying that another inmate had targeted him for violence.
“It is the state’s responsibility to keep those who are in its prisons safe from harm,” Faraino said, with the lawsuit emphasizing that severe overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons would have made it more difficult for staff to supervise inmates and ensure their well-being.
“No member in the correctional staff was available to prevent the abuse Mr. Dotson endured and the constant and unlimited access to drugs that he had, or to rescue Mr. Dotson timely to save his life, or if they were available, they ignored the warning signs and direct pleas for help when they had every opportunity to intervene and prevent Dotson’s death,” the complaint states.
Dotson’s family also claims that, in the five days it took the prison to release Dotson’s body, it had already reached an advanced stage of decomposition.
“It was five days,” said Dotson’s mother, Audrey South. “I got to see him on the sixth day, but they didn’t want me to see him because they wanted to do something to make him look a little better because it was horrific.”
“I wouldn’t even say that was human, how bad my son looked,” South said.
Attorneys for the family say that the director of Lawrence Funeral Home, which oversaw Dotson’s burial, had earlier opined that Dotson’s body was so extensively decomposed that it could not have been properly stored.
“Upon opening the casket, the family members saw bruising on the back of Mr. Dotson’s neck and excessive swelling across the face,” the lawsuit alleges. “The stench of his body was overwhelming. As a result, the family decided to have a closed casket funeral.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order for the return of Dotson’s heart, tissue, and other organs, as well as a range of damages to be determined at trial.