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More Alabama Prisoners’ Families Say Their Corpses Were Returned Without Organs

More cases have surfaced in which families report organs missing from the bodies of loved ones who died in custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC). As PLN reported, the first was the family of Brandon Dotson, 43, who was murdered by a fellow prisoner at Ventress Correctional Facility on November 16, 2023—and whose body was returned to them five days later without a heart. [See: PLN, Jan. 2024, p.12.]

            But it turns out that after 85-year-old Arthur Stapler died on September 23, 2023, during a 10-year incarceration for child sex abuse at the Hamilton Aged and Infirm Center, his son hired a private pathologist who found “an empty cavity” where his organs should be. Billy Stapler then phoned the autopsy department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to ask for the organs, only to learn “that they possibly got thrown away.”

The family of Kelvin Moore, 42, said his body was also returned without organs after he died of a fentanyl overdose at Limestone Correctional Facility on July 21, 2023. When UAB completed an autopsy, it turned over his body to a mortician, who reported most of his organs were missing—leaving no way to verify his cause of death. The family later picked up most of the organs from UAB and buried them with Moore, who had survived over two decades of a life-without-parole sentence for attempted murder and attempted burglary.

Anthony Perez Brackins, 36, was serving 21 years for armed robbery when he died at Limestone on June 28, 2023, also of an accidental drug overdose. UAB returned his body without organs, too, even though he—like Moore and Stapler—was not an organ donor, and his family was never asked for consent. Worse, when the family asked UAB for the organs, an employee declared it was “too late now.”

Marvin and Sara Kennedy got no organs except the eyes of Marvin’s brother, Jim Kennedy, Jr., 67, after he died at Limestone on April 13, 2023, while serving 300 years for rape, sodomy and kidnapping. When Sara Kennedy phoned UAB, she recorded a six-minute phone conversation with an unnamed supervisor who said, “We’ve never had this request done before.”

“Who buries somebody without their organs?” Kennedy demanded.

“Well, we do it all the time,” the supervisor replied, explaining that “UAB is a teaching institution and any teaching institution that does autopsies, keeps their organs.”

But that’s against the law in Alabama, where medical examiners must notify next-of-kin when they retain the organs to determine the manner or cause of death. They must also get approval to keep organs for research or other purposes. State lawmakers are now working on a bill to make a violation of that law a Class C felony carrying a 10-year prison term.

A 2005 agreement between DOC and UAB apparently executed in violation of the law declares the warden is the “legally designated representative” and “legally entitled to grant permission for the completion of an autopsy and the removal of organs or tissues for further study on [a deceased] inmate.”

In a suit filed by Dotson’s survivors in federal court for the Northern District of Alabama, an affidavit was provided on January 3, 2024, by the daughter of Charles Edward Singleton, a 74-year-old prisoner who died in November 2021 at Hamilton. After an autopsy at UAB, the body arrived at a funeral home, where the family was told that a viewing was not advisable because of “advanced skin slippage” blamed on the fact there were no organs in his body. A request to UAB to return the missing parts was never honored.

Lauren Faraino, an attorney representing Dotson’s family, called the missing organs “absolutely part of a pattern” as she built her case for unauthorized organ removal. Plaintiffs then stipulated to a dismissal of the case on April 1, 2024; PLN will report additional information in the case as it is available. See: Dotson v. Ala. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-01657.

Meanwhile Faraino is also representing the other five families in suits against DOC and UAB filed in the state’s Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court for Montgomery County. She pointed to a 2017 UAB Division of Autopsy report that said 23% of its yearly income from 2006 to 2015 came from DOC autopsies, each of which earns UAB a $2,200 fee, plus $100 for each toxicology test. The suit filed for Stapler’s family says that “Defendants’ appalling misconduct is nothing short of grave robbery and mutilation.” See: Stapler v. Hamm, Ala. 15th Jud. Cir. (Montgomery Cty.), Case No. 03-CV-2024-900568.

On April 2, 2024, DOC Commissioner John Hamm proposed creating a 15-member Family Services Unit at each of the state’s 14 major prisons tasked with facilitating communication to prisoners’ families, including death notifications.

 

Additional sources: Alabama Daily News, CNN, The Guardian, NBC News, WBMA

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