A local woman has successfully prompted the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences [ADFS] to change its policies on retaining organs when necessary for state autopsies.
In 2016, Lagniappe spoke with Donna Crooks Atkins, who discovered the state’s forensics lab in Mobile had removed, retained and disposed of her deceased son’s heart without notifying her — a result of what she described as Alabama’s “invisible law.”
Just this year, another family in Baldwin County took a civil lawsuit against employees from the ADFS lab in Mobile all the way to Alabama’s Supreme Court. In court filings, Gloria Austill accused senior medical examiner John Krolikowski of keeping her deceased father’s brain without the family’s permission — allegedly preserving it “in his office for his own use.”
Krolikowski was dismissed from the lawsuit on the grounds of state immunity, and the high court upheld the ruling after Austill’s family filed an appeal.
However, a medical examiner who submitted an affidavit on Krolikowski’s behalf said there was no requirement in state law or ADFS policy that a family must authorize or even be notified when the state lab needs to “retain needed specimens” in the performance of its statutory duties.
True at the time, ADFS Director Angelo Della Manna said the state forensics lab has since made some internal changes in order to be more transparent in how its handles autopsies, even though he said the retention of an entire organ is a “rare” occurrence for state examiners.
Now, at the end of every forensic report in cases where ADFS has retained an organ, Della Manna said family members are notified. He said informing the deceased’s next of kin as early as possible gives them time to decide what they want done with their loved one’s organ.
“We let them know it’s been retained for additional testing and then, after a year or two depending on the case, it will be disposed of unless they want it transferred to them,” he added. “To be honest with you, though, this is extremely rare that someone says, ‘I want this heart back’ because from from the medical community’s standpoint, it is a biological hazard.”
Even so, Della Manna did say he understood it would be emotional for some to realize an organ was removed for further study only after they had buried a loved one, though he said families who opt to have an organ returned could have to wait years before ADFS is done examining it.
What’s more, even with the internal policy changes, Della Manna said ADFS will not be required to obtain a family’s permission to retain a deceased person’s organs when performing an autopsy. He said ADFS is statutorily obligated to determine the cause and manner of someone’s death, adding that, many autopsies are connected to criminal or civil cases and investigations.
“It’s almost like how some people say, ‘Because of my religious beliefs, I don’t want an autopsy performed on my loved one,’” Della Manna said. “We encounter that on occasion, but the law says when it’s authorized by a district attorney, attorney general, the governor or a judge, we have a statutory obligation as the state forensic lab to determine the cause and manner of death.”
According to Della Manna, ADFS adopted these new internal changes after being contacted by Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Montrose), who told Lagniappe he opted to pursue a change within ADFS instead of attempting to pass a new regulation through the Alabama Legislature.
Those conversations began because of Atkins, who lives in Pittman’s district. He’s one of several state officials Atkins has spoken with about creating of a law requiring ADFS to obtain a signed document showing family members were notified before retaining a deceased person’s organs.
While she’s happy a change was made, Atkins said she’s skeptical an internal policy will prevent situations like hers as effectively as a law with legal ramifications would have.
“I’m glad they’re doing this, but I did want some kind of repercussion if they don’t. Many people probably wouldn’t want to know, but if they do — they check a box and you notify them,” Atkins said. “I just don’t understand this burden that a law is supposedly going to place on them. I just think they don’t want a law because they’ll actually have to follow it.”
Atkins believes she has reason to be skeptical of ADFS’ ability to follow its own policies, too.
A copy of a laboratory information management systems (LIMS) report created by the ADFS lab in Mobile related to her son’s heart indicates the organ was disposed of in August 2013 “even though it had a hold on it” related to a civil suit she had filed against Thomas Hospital.
That legal hold was requested by attorneys representing Atkin’s son Justin’s former medical providers that were defendants in Atkins’ now dismissed civil lawsuit. Atkins, on the other hand, says she thought her son’s heart was cremated with his body for nearly six years, and only found out otherwise when slides and samples from it were used as evidence by the defense in her trial.
Like Della Manna, Pittman said he understands how someone in Atkin’s situation would feel, which is why he contacted ADFS about making internal changes in the first place. However, he said adding new laws governing ADFS could create a complicated situation, not just for the lab, but also for the law enforcement and district attorneys who routinely utilize its services.
“Normally when a body that goes to the forensic lab, there’s a question about what happened. So there are protocols and procedures that involve lots of different state statues,” Pittman said.
“Sometimes potential evidence needs to be kept for trial, and emotionally, you have compassion for those that are involved in the process with a loved one, but you also have to understand the challenges of making sure the process is followed and justice is done, too.”