He died in prison. His corpse was returned without a heart. Now his family is suing.

It's been 53 days since officials say inmate Brandon Clay Dotson was found dead in his Alabama prison bed.

On Monday, the man's family − and a federal judge − were still waiting to learn how he died and, disturbingly, why his heart was missing from his body when it was released to relatives, court documents show.

According to a lawsuit filed Dec. 7 in the Northern District of Alabama, Dotson died Nov. 16 – the same day he was considered for parole release.

At the time of this death, court records show the 43-year-old man was housed at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton − a tiny town in Barbour County about 70 miles southeast of Montgomery.

Brandon Clay Dotson
Brandon Clay Dotson

Dotson was serving time for a burglary, the Alabama Department of Corrections told ABC 33/40 News, when he was found unresponsive in his cell and taken to the Health Care Unit where he was pronounced dead.

After his death, his mother, Audrey South, contacted the warden and requested her son's body be released to family "in hopes of holding his funeral before Thanksgiving Day." The state Department of Corrections, according to the suit, told her it needed to perform a routine autopsy on her son first.

Dotson's "severely decomposed" body was released Nov. 21, the complaint continues. Family "suspected foul play," so they hired a pathologist to conduct a second autopsy and, during the exam, a doctor found his heart was missing from his chest cavity.

On the heels of a hearing in federal court in downtown Birmingham last week, a judge on Monday was still working to pinpoint where Dotson's heart is located.

According to the 34-page complaint, Dotson's cause of death remained undetermined because of the removal of the heart. His heart, the lawsuit claims, is necessary to "obtain an accurate and complete determination of the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s death."

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'Gross negligence'

Neither the Alabama Department of Corrections nor the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which conducts autopsies for the state prison agency, could immediately be reached by USA TODAY Monday.

In addition to those state agencies, the lawsuit names other defendants including the Ventress Correctional Facility warden, several of its correction officers and the University of Alabama (UAB) Medical Center.

South and Dotson's daughter, Audrey Dotson, who jointly filed suit, allege the state Department of Corrections − or whoever who transported the body, "removed and retained" Dotson’s heart during the autopsy without their consent.

"The heart of a deceased person simply does not go missing in the absence of deliberate illegal activity or gross negligence on behalf of the entity or entities that had possession of the body prior to it being turned over to the family for burial," the lawsuit reads.

A target of violence

According to the lawsuit, in the days leading up to his death, Dotson had been in segregated housing asking for help, as "he was the target of violence by another inmate."

"Dotson was forced to vacate his assigned bed by an incarcerated man who was regularly providing Mr. Dotson with drugs, and punishing him when he failed to pay his debt for those drugs," the suit continues.

The suit claims corrections officers were aware of Dotson’s concerns for his safety, "yet did nothing to prevent the harm that came to him in the week leading up to his death."

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Testimony and a judge's pending review

On Friday, court records show, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala held a hearing at Hugo Black U.S. Courthouse in an effort to find out where the heart is and why it disappeared.

Testimony revealed Dotson’s autopsy was performed by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, AL.com reported and attorneys for UAB argued that no one from the school performed the initial autopsy on Dotson, nor had his body or organs ever been in their custody.

Five witnesses − the warden, the commissioner and chief deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, the director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, and the head of autopsies at UAB − took the stand and, according to the outlet, testified the whereabouts of the heart remain a mystery.

Lawyers for the prison system said Dotson’s heart was inside his body when it left the prison and said they do not have the heart, the outlet reported. But Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Angelo Della Manna, said he had not reviewed Dotson’s case file so he could not answer questions about it.

In a standard autopsy, the outlet reported, he said the following procedures take place:

  • Internal organs are "examined and then sectioned" or have "pieces of tissue cut off, to be sent for further testing to determine cause and manner of death."

  • Organs are then placed in "a special biohazard bag and returned to their appropriate body cavity" but are not replaced "in the exact place where they anatomically are located."

  • The tissue sectioned or cut off are "generally the only pieces of organs that would not be returned to the body."

The director, the outlet reported, could not give a reason why "a fully intact organ" would not returned to a body.

If any sections were sent for further testing, or if there was anything abnormal about the body, Della Manna testified, that information would be in Dotson’s case file and autopsy report which − according to the suit− is not yet public and has not yet been provided to Dotson's family.

The judge ordered the state to provide that report for her to review by the end of the day Monday, according to the outlet.

Jury trial and restraining order requests

Attorney Lauren Faraino, who represents the Dotson family, told the outlet she believed the university "was planning to receive the heart until lawsuit was filed."

In court Friday, the outlet reported, a university lawyer testified there was no evidence that was the case, and said the university is “certainly very sympathetic” to Dotson's family.

The suit which claims wrongful death, violation of constitutional rights, fraud, negligence and more, demands a jury trial.

It also requests a temporary restraining order to prevent the state Department of Corrections from retaining Dotson's remains and that they be returned to Dotson’s next of kin.

Natalie Neysa Alund is a senior reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at nalund@usatoday.com and follow her on X @nataliealund.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama inmate's body was returned without a heart, lawsuit claims