For Donna Atkins, the introduction of Alabama Senate Bill 9 has been a long time coming.
That legislation, introduced by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, would require the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to notify the family of any deceased person undergoing a state autopsy if one of their organs is retained for further evaluation.
In addition to that, the bill would also make it a Class C felony — punishable by one to 10 years in state prison — for any state medical examiner to retain the organ of a deceased person for any reason other than determining the cause and manner of that person’s death.
“If there’s no repercussion, then you’re just wasting everybody’s time. There has to be some kind of a consequence,” Atkins said. “The Class C felony is what I have wanted because if I go out and take something that doesn’t belong to me, it’s theft. This doesn’t belong to you!”
Atkins believes that’s exactly what happened when an ADFS forensics lab in Mobile removed, retained and eventually disposed of her deceased son’s heart without ever notifying her. Justin Wendle Crooks was 17 when he died in 2007 from a ruptured aortic dissection.
A copy of a laboratory information management systems (LIMS) report created by the ADFS lab in Mobile related to Justin’s heart indicates the organ was disposed of in August 2013, “even though it had a hold on it” because of a civil suit Atkins had filed against Thomas Hospital.
Atkins claims her son’s heart was kept and used for “teaching autopsies,” but ADFS had denied that.
A copy of the LIMS report she shared with Lagniappe doesn’t seem to indicate anything about the heart being retained for research either. Instead, the organ — or at the very least slides taken from it — were retained at the request of attorneys representing Justin’s former doctors.
In her lawsuit, Atkins claimed those doctors negligently missed signs of a larger heart problem before her son’s death. Based on the LIMS report, it appears Justin’s heart was mistakenly disposed of — “thrown in the garbage,” if you ask Atkins — despite the hold on it at the time.
Her lawsuit was dismissed, but Atkins says it’s the only reason she knows her son’s heart is still missing from the ashes she’s kept in her home for 12 years. State Sen. Chris Elliot, R-Daphne, said he has met with Atkins before and believes ADFS’ practices need more stringent regulations.
“I think anybody who hears her story would be just as aghast as I was about what all she went through after her son’s death,” Elliott said. “I don’t want to say the people in that profession are callous, but in that line of work, I’m sure they can be numb to how that might impact a family.”
Despite his support, Elliott said the bill was drafted and introduced by Coleman-Madison, at least in part because of concerns some of her constituents raised in Jefferson County. It’s worth noting that Jefferson County has its own regional crime lab that is unaffiliated with ADFS.
A reporter reached out to Sen. Coleman-Madison but did not receive a response by this publication’s press deadline. However, her bill is expected to come before the governmental affairs committee this week — a committee she currently sits on and Elliot co-chairs.
However, ADFS Director Angelo DellaManna doesn’t personally believe Coleman-Madison’s bill is necessary as it’s currently drafted because ADFS has already changed some of its internal policies regarding organ retention.
He said family members are now notified and can request to have an organ returned to them once a cause of death is officially determined.
“What we’re talking about in terms of organ retention is an extremely rare occurrence,” DellaManna said. “But we agreed that to be totally transparent was the best approach, and to at least notify individuals or the readers of our autopsy reports that an organ has been retained to determine the cause and manner of a person’s death and only in those instances.”
The change he refers to actually came about mostly because of Atkins as well as another family from Baldwin County. A civil suit filed by Gloria Austill accused an ADFS senior medical examiner of keeping her deceased father’s brain without the family’s permission — allegedly preserving it “in his office for his own use.” The case was ultimately dismissed in 2018.
Still, the prominence of Austill’s case and Atkins’ public outcries about her son’s heart brought the issue to the attention of Elliott’s predecessor, former Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Fairhope. Pittman worked with ADFS on the policy change last year, in part, to avoid new legislative regulations.
DellaManna said he believes that was sufficient, and as far as the requirement to notify family members, he doesn’t believe the issue needs to be legislated further. He did note that it would best left up to the Legislature to determine if criminal penalties for “misuse” are appropriate.
“Currently, there’s standard language in the autopsy report that states an organ has been retained,” DellaManna said. “It also describes how long it will be retained and, unless alternate arrangements are made, that it will be disposed of as medical waste like in any other surgical procedure. If they want it to be handled differently, it also gives them ample time to notify us.”
According to DellaManna, the changes have been “well received,” but some family members like Atkins and Austill still have concerns due to their past experiences with ADFS.
Atkins said she doesn’t trust the agency to do what it says it will do without the threat of repercussions, and Austill’s entire lawsuit was based on ADFS employees allegedly violating internal policies.
Elliott told Lagniappe this week that Coleman-Madison was taking point on the bill and had requested a slight delay to make sure her concerns with Jefferson County’s separate forensics lab are addressed. However, he said he supports the application of the bill to ADFS statewide.
“I didn’t sponsor the bill, so I haven’t talked to forensic science directly, but it’s my experience from my time on the [Baldwin County] Commission and so far in the Senate that any time a department sees additional regulations — especially ones that include criminal penalties for wrongdoing — they’re not going to be thrilled,” he said. “But I think it does merit that kind of teeth. I’ve advocated for this bill moving forward, and I’m fully supportive of it, including the penalties.”
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