A Mobile County woman is celebrating the passage of a new state law that requires medical examiners to notify the next of kin when retaining organs from deceased persons.
Less than a day after 17-year-old Justin Crooks suddenly died from an aneurysm in 2007, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences harvested his heart, putting it in a teaching room cabinet. Crooks’ mother, Donna Atkins, said she was never notified her son’s heart was harvested, and she only discovered it after she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Thomas Hospital for allegedly failing to recognize symptoms of his heart condition. Then, just 27 days before the case was scheduled for trial, and again without notice, the state unceremoniously disposed of the heart.
“They kept his heart for six years, four months and 19 days then disposed of it, all without my consent,” Atkins said. “This was the third year we had a bill in the Legislature and it’s changed a little — they dropped a provision that made it a felony to violate the law — but I was hopeful it was going to pass last year before the pandemic.”
Sponsored by State Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, Senate Bill 22 specifically requires notification of next of kin “when an organ of a deceased person is retained to determine identification or the manner or cause of death” and to “obtain approval to retain organ of the deceased for research not associated with the cause of death.”
The bill allows exemptions for notification by order of the governor, the attorney general, a district attorney or a circuit court judge. It passed the Legislature April 1 and was signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey April 7.
“I watched [the bill] every step of the way,” Atkins said. “When it went to the House, I called all the committee people, emailed everyone until I drove them nuts, until they said they’d pass it.”
In fiscal notes, State Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, and State Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, noted the bill “would increase the administrative obligations of various state and local law enforcement agencies by an undetermined amount,” but Atkins said no state or municipal agency ever testified as to how frequently organs are retained.
“They take a lot of organs without people knowing about it,” she said. “More or less every time there is an autopsy and the cause of death is undetermined or unusual. [Someone] told me they take eyes, brains, hearts, whatever deem necessary, but they don’t keep centralized records of it or disclose it because the public would find it upsetting. But why would you think you can take an organ off someone’s body without consent?”
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