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‘Nothing short of grave robbery’: 2 families allege bodies of Alabama prison inmates were returned missing organs

By Chris Boyette, CNN

(CNN) — Two families have claimed that when the Alabama Department of Corrections returned the bodies of their loved ones who died in prison, they were found to be missing one or more internal organs, court documents show.

When Charles Edward Singleton died at age 74, he was incarcerated at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center in Hamilton, about 90 miles northwest of Birmingham.

The chaplain of the prison told his family the corrections department would take care of funeral arrangements, according to an affidavit signed January 3 by Singleton’s daughter, Charlene Drake.

Drake said she told the chaplain the family wanted to make the arrangements and asked that the body be transported to a funeral home. But when Singleton’s body arrived, the funeral director informed her “it would be difficult to prepare his body for viewing, as his body was already in a noticeable state of decomposition” and his internal organs, including his brain, were missing, the affidavit said.

The funeral director said the organs are normally placed in a bag and put back in the body after an autopsy, but not in Singleton’s case, according to the affidavit.

The Alabama Department of Corrections told CNN it does not comment on pending litigation, nor does it authorize or perform autopsies.

“Once an inmate dies, the body is transported to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences or (the University of Alabama at Birmingham) for autopsy, depending on several factors, including but not limited to region and whether the death is unlawful, suspicious, or unnatural,” the department said in a statement.

Drake’s affidavit was filed in support of a federal lawsuit filed by the family of Brandon Clay Dotson, who was found dead at age 43 in Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton on November 16, 2023.

Dotson’s family struggled to get the Alabama Department of Corrections to release his body and when they did, five days later, “the body had not been properly stored and was severely decomposed,” according to the lawsuit.

The family hired a pathologist to perform a second autopsy and he found the heart was missing, the affidavit said.

“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 lawsuit said. “Their appalling misconduct is nothing short of grave robbery and mutilation.”

Lauren Faraino, an attorney representing Dotson’s family, called the alleged misconduct “abuse.”

“Alabama’s prison system is characterized by cruelty,” she said. “We are now learning that the horrors do not end at death.”

In addition to the state corrections department, the lawsuit names the University of Alabama, which it claims has a track record of using the removed organs of inmates for medical research and training.

A spokesperson for the university vigorously denied that claim, and said while the university is among providers that conduct autopsies of incarcerated people at the direction of the state of Alabama, it did not perform Dotson’s autopsy.

It is unclear if the university was involved with the autopsy of Singleton, and CNN has reached back out for clarification.

Alicia Rohan, University of Alabama at Birmingham’s director of external public relations, said the university does not comment on pending litigation, but they have clear autopsy policies.

“We only conduct autopsies with consent or authorization and follow standard procedures equitably for anyone consented to or authorized for an autopsy,” Rohan 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.”

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