A family from Tennessee is suing the Alabama Department of Correction claiming the body of a relative, who died while in custody, was returned to them without his heart.
Brandon Dotson, 43, was found dead last month at the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County.
He had been in prison for 19 years as part of a 99-year sentence for a burglary conviction and parole violation in Lawrence County.
His apparent sudden death occurred on the same day he was to be considered for parole.
According to a federal lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections, Dotson’s body was missing his heart and his corpse was so badly decomposed the family was unable to have an open-casket funeral.
Brandon Dotson, 43, was found dead in mid-November in the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County after serving 19 years for burglary
His family say when Dotson’s body was returned to them for burial, his heart was missing and they are now suing the Alabama Department of Correction
The disturbing discovery was only noticed by an independent pathologist the family hired in Birmingham to determine his cause of death.
The pathologist noted ‘the heart was missing from the chest cavity of Mr. Dotson’s body’ making it hard to determine how Dotson died.
The suit alleges wrongful death and cites the failure of prison officials to safeguard Dotson, neglecting his medical needs, and mishandling of his remains.
The suit asks for an unspecified amount of money.
‘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,’ the complaint states.
The lawsuit, filed by Dotson’s daughter Audrey Marie Dotson and his mother Audrey South, also contends that Dotson’s body was not released to the family until five days after his death.
The complaint names ADOC Chief Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Greg Lovelace, left, and Ventress Correctional Facility Warden Karen Williams, right, as defendants
The suit alleges wrongful death and cites the failure of prison officials at Ventress Correctional Facility, pictured, to safeguard Dotson, neglecting his medical needs and mishandling his remains
The Dotson family’s attorney Lauren Faraino called it ‘so grotesque and disrespectful and unacceptable’ to take a vital organ from someone ‘without the family knowing’
The family said when they observed Dotson’s body they saw ‘bruising on the back of his neck and excessive swelling across his head.’
‘Defendants performed an autopsy on the deceased and removed the heart, thereby concealing the true cause of death. By taking this action, Defendants intentionally or recklessly destroyed or altered key evidence that deprived Plaintiff of the ability to determine how the deceased died through an independent autopsy,’ the lawsuit states.
‘The heart is a vital organ that would provide critical evidence in assessing the cause of death. Without the heart, Plaintiff cannot obtain an accurate and complete determination of the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s death.’
Dotson family’s attorney Lauren Faraino called it ‘so grotesque and disrespectful and unacceptable’ to take a vital organ from someone ‘without the family knowing.’
The family believes the heart may have been given to the University of Alabama- Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine for medical research purposes by students.
The lawsuit alleges how Dotson had asked for help days before he died, saying that another inmate was targeting him for violence
The lawsuit also states when Dotson’s brother contacted the prison to retrieve Dotson’s body, the warden ‘expressed surprise,’ adding many families do not collect inmates’ bodies and sometimes aren’t notified of their deaths
‘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. At this time we do not know where his heart is. It is the state’s responsibility to keep those who are in its prisons safe from harm,’ Faraino said.
‘For days the family attempted to claim his body after submitting the proper paperwork as soon as they were alerted to his untimely death. Finally, his body was released to his family nearly a week later on November 21, 2023. At this point the body had not been properly stored and was severely decomposed,’ the lawsuit states.
‘Despite the family’s initial wishes, they had no choice but to hold a closed casket funeral service.’
‘It was five days before the body was released,’ South said to the Moulton Advertiser. ‘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.’
Dotson’s corpse was so badly decomposed the family were unable to have an open casket funeral
The lawsuit adds: ‘To date, no one has explained to the family why Mr. Dotson’s heart was missing when his body was turned over to them’ and plaintiffs ‘do not know where Mr. Dotson’s heart currently is, or in whose possession.’
The family is now looking for answers and suggests that two possible scenarios might have occurred. One was that Dotson was subjected to violence within the facility, or he had access to drugs.
Dotson’s mother and daughter filed the suit to ‘seek the immediate return of Mr. Dotson’s heart’ so the vital organ ‘may be examined by an autopsy pathologist and then properly cremated or interred.’
The lawsuit details how Dotson asked for help days before he died, saying that another inmate was targeting him for violence.
The suit also notes that severe overcrowding in Alabama prisons also led to a lack of inmate supervision.
‘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 the death of Mr. Dotson,’ the suit claims.
The lawsuit also states when Dotson’s brother contacted the prison to retrieve Dotson’s body, the warden ‘expressed surprise,’ adding many families do not collect inmates’ bodies and sometimes aren’t notified of their deaths.
The complaint names DOC Commissioner John Q. Hamm, DOC Chief Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Greg Lovelace, Ventress Correctional Facility Warden Karen Williams, Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Angelo Della Manna, multiple unnamed prison employees, and the University of Alabama at-Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine as defendants.
The Alabama Department of Corrections has said it does not comment on pending litigation, but did release a statement on the incident last month.
‘On Thursday, November 16, 2023, inmate Brandon Dotson was found unresponsive in his cell at Ventress Correctional Facility. He was transported to the Health Care Unit where medical staff conducted life-saving measures. Unfortunately, Dotson was not able to be resuscitated, and he was pronounced deceased by the attending physician.
‘Dotson, 43 years old, was serving a 99-year sentence for Burglary III out of Lawrence County.’
In 2022, 260 inmates died in Alabama prison custody, according to the lawsuit. The figure is the highest in the department’s history. The death rate in 2023 is similar.
The complaint also references the ongoing lawsuit filed against the Alabama prison system by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging unconstitutional conditions.
Last week, Alabama officials released statistics showing assaults in state prisons increased by more than 41 percent in 2023 compared to 2022.
Of the 2,073 assaults, 1,578 of them were between inmates, and 495 of them were reported as inmate assaults on prison staff.
In September alone, there were 137 assaults between inmates and 42 inmate assaults on prison staff.
According to the most recent report from DOC, in September, Ventress was designed to hold up to 650 inmates but currently holds 1,237.