The family of an Alabama inmate who was found dead in his bed filed a federal lawsuit alleging that his heart had been removed before the facility returned the body to them.
Brandon Dotson’s relatives also said they are still waiting to find out how he died on Nov. 16 at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton.
“Plaintiffs were a grieving family searching for answers in the wake of Brandon Dotson’s untimely death,” said a lawsuit filed on Dec. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. “Defendant’s overall mistreatment of Mr. Dotson’s body and the Dotson family amounts to outrageous conduct that needlessly and recklessly intensified the family’s emotional distress.”
Dotson, 43, was found dead in his bed at the prison, according to the suit. He had been serving 99 years for a burglary offense, according to NBC affiliate WMTV of Madison, Wisconsin.
The warden called Dotson’s brother on the evening of Nov. 16 and informed him of the death. The brother told the warden that the family wanted the body to be released to them, according to the suit.
Dotson’s mother, Audrey South, had requested that the facility not touch her son’s body, but she was informed by the warden that the Alabama Department of Corrections had to complete an autopsy, the lawsuit stated.
When the family received the body on Nov. 21, they immediately had concerns.
The lawsuit alleged that a pathologist hired by the family to conduct a second autopsy discovered that Dotson’s heart had been removed from his body.
They said the body was “severely decomposed” when they received it and had an “overwhelming” stench, according to the lawsuit. Dotson had bruising on the back of his neck and “excessive swelling across his head,” the lawsuit stated, alleging that the family believes it was improperly stored while in possession of the state.
Initially, the family wanted to have an open-casket funeral, but because of the condition of the body, they could not, the suit said.
Dotson’s family said in the lawsuit that in the days before he died, he had been asking for help and was the target of another inmate. The suit accused staff of ignoring his pleas and said that he was being housed in an area that was “grossly understaffed and severely overcrowded.”
The Department of Corrections said the death is being investigated by its Law Enforcement Services Division. The cause of death is “pending an autopsy and the conclusion of the investigation,” the department said.
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the corrections department, declined to comment Thursday.
In addition to the corrections department, the lawsuit names the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which conducts autopsies for the corrections department, the University of Alabama System and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink Medical School among the defendants.
The family alleged that it believes the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine is a “possible intended recipient” of Dotson’s heart. They said in the lawsuit that the school receives specimens from autopsies by the Department of Corrections for educational purposes.
A spokesperson for the university said they reviewed their records and “did not perform this autopsy and has not been involved with this matter.”
NBC News reached out to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Thursday for comment.
The family is seeking the immediate return of his heart and wants answers about his death.