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The Alabama Department of Corrections and staff members at Ventress Correctional Facility have not disclosed the whereabouts of a deceased inmate’s missing heart for 50 days, according to court filings on behalf of his family, who are trying to retrieve the organ before it “deteriorates” entirely. 

After hearing that Brandon Clay Dotson had died in the Alabama prison on Nov. 21, his sister Audrey Marie Dotson and mother Audrey South said they spent five days trying to claim his body. 

When he was finally returned to his family, they claim, they saw “bruising on the back of [his] neck and excessive swelling across his head.” 

Perturbed and unsure of precisely how he died, court documents show, the family hired their own pathologist to conduct an autopsy. The 43-year-old inmate’s heart was missing from his chest cavity, the family claims in their lawsuit. 

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His relatives said in their lawsuit that they are still unclear about how he died, and never received a death certificate. 

Dotson had served 19 years of his 99-year sentence in prison for a burglary conviction and a parole violation at Barbour County’s Ventress Correctional Facility.

In the days before his death, Dotson allegedly told prison staff that another inmate was threatening him with violence. In response, prison staff allegedly moved Dotson from “segregated housing” into general population, where he could access drugs and be attacked easily by those seeking to harm and exploit him in the “grossly understaffed and severely overcrowded” Ventress Correctional Facility, according to the lawsuit.

Although he was not sentenced to life, the initial complaint shows, the alleged misconduct of prison staff was “tantamount to a death sentence.”

According to court filings lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama last week, defendants named in the lawsuit “glaringly were not able to answer” the whereabouts of Dotson’s heart in a phone conference on Dec. 7.

The suit names Alabama Department of Corrections brass, the warden of the Ventress Correctional Facility, the director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and unnamed prison employees as defendants. 

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Ventress Correctional Facility

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine is also named as a defendant, because the school is a “possible intended recipient of Mr. Dotson’s heart.”

The lawsuit cites an alleged recent history of the Alabama DOC providing “human organs and tissues” to medical students for “laboratory exercises.” 

In an emailed statement in October, University of Alabama at Birmingham media specialist Brianna Hoge told Fox News Digital that the school has reviewed its records, “which show that UAB did not perform this autopsy and has not been involved in this matter,” and subsequently reached out to the family’s attorney.

Regardless, the school is still named in more recent court filings. Among 16 documents Dotson’s family are seeking from the defendants include any contracts between the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences – or any entity connected with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, including their department of pathology. 

Dotson’s family successfully petitioned for an expedited discovery period, which the court imposed on all parties on Dec. 29, court documents show. 

“Plaintiffs contend that there are few matters that present more of an ‘impelling urgency’ or ‘hazard of loss’ requiring swift action than in the case of a missing organ. Organs and tissues that are not adequately preserved deteriorate,” reads a Jan. 3 court filing. 

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“If Brandon Dotson’s heart has not been illegally destroyed, it is of critical importance to confirm that it is being stored properly. Furthermore, the family has spent nearly fifty agonizing days wondering where the heart of their loved one currently is,” the suit reads. “Courts in nearly all districts have recognized the heightened sensitivity of proper handling of human remains. This case could not be a clearer example of mishandling remains of a deceased: the evidence available to Plaintiffs indicates that Defendants removed, potentially misplaced and improperly destroyed a human heart, and now are attempting to hide the details of such activity from the family.”

The Dotson family is now demanding various documents, including one that details the chain of command of their relatives’ body from his cell at Ventress to Abanks Medical Center, where they first saw his corpse; the document in which the prison’s warden authorized his autopsy; Dotson’s death certificate; Dotson’s autopsy report, regardless of whether it was completed; video footage from around or near Dotson’s cell at Ventress; any documentation of life-saving measures taken when Dotson was found dead; and documentation of any investigation regarding his death that was carried out. 

The family’s attorney, Lauren Faraino, also asked for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences’ policies regarding the removal and retention of human organs post-autopsy, a form from the agency given to family members of non-incarcerated prospective autopsy subjects and one used for incarcerated individual’s autopsies

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The family also asked for a list of all organs that have been removed or retained from inmates who died in the Alabama prison system since 2013, a document that the defendants have allegedly conceded exists. 

“This document is critical to fulfill the third measure sought in the motion for TRO: freezing the practice of improperly and potentially illegally retaining organs from autopsies without providing notice or seeking consent from the family members of the deceased,” the document reads. 

In September 2018, the family’s attorney contends, UAB students raised concerns about a “disproportionate amount of specimens obtained from individuals incarcerated at their time of death.” Any minutes from this meeting are also requested. 

Dotson’s family members did not comment at press time in fear of jeopardizing the ongoing legal process, and Faraino was unavailable for comment.

An attorney representing the University of Alabama at Birmingham declined to comment on the case. 

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