ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — In July, a law will go into effect requiring medical examiners, through the appropriate law enforcement agency, to notify next of kin when keeping a person’s organs for purposes other than conducting a death investigation.
For Foley native and Robertsdale resident Donna Crooks Atkins, the law, recently signed by Gov. Kay Ivey, is a small victory in a well over decade-long fight sparked by her son Justin’s death at the age of 17.
“I never realized passing a law would be so amazing,” Atkins said. “I didn’t realize that I would have to fight every step of the way.”
It was an ordeal that began in March of 2007 when Justin woke up complaining of chest pains that radiated to the back of his head and neck, which worsened with deep breaths.
Atkins said she rushed Justin to the hospital, where they sat in the ER waiting room for hours waiting to be seen. They were only seen, she said, when someone who worked at the hospital happened by, asked what they were doing there and quickly got them back to the doctor on call.
Once there, Atkins said, Justin was examined, hooked to an EKG machine, and quickly diagnosed with chest wall pain or muscle pain. He was given a double dose (for an adult) of pain medicine and they were sent home.
Eleven days later, Atkins said, Justin left the house early with friends on a Sunday morning. She would leave some time later to go to church. After church, she says, she went grocery shopping and received a call from Justin.
Her husband and another son had also left the house and Justin was home alone. He was calling to find out when she would be home.
“He was a teenage boy,” she said. “What can I say, he wanted to know when I’d have dinner ready.”
But in the middle of their conversation, Atkins said, Justin suddenly uttered an expletive and the connection between them was abruptly lost.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I just thought he dropped the phone or something and we lost the connection.”
By the time she returned home, her husband and younger son had also returned home, but she didn’t see Justin at first.
Her younger son found Justin in another room.
“He (the younger son) came running in the room and said there was something wrong with Justin,” she said.
They ran to find Justin slumped over in a chair.
“He always had the prettiest red lips. He had lips that most women would be envious of,” said Atkins. But when she looked at his lips that day, her heart sank. His lips were completely blue.
They called 9-1-1 and Justin was rushed to a different hospital, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead on arrival.
“The hospital told us that they provided a ‘standard of care,’ for someone coming into the emergency room,” Atkins said, but she believes the doctors and the hospital did not perform basic tests, such as a CT or an MRI, which could have led to a proper diagnosis.
Atkins and Justin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and the ER doctor who treated Justin and an autopsy and toxicology analysis were performed by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences laboratory in Mobile.
It took over six months to get the results of the tests. Toxicology tests showed what Atkins said she already knew, that there were no illegal drugs in Justin’s system.
The autopsy showed that Justin died as a result of a ruptured aortic dissection in his heart, the kind that usually result from connective tissue disorders such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder, although Justin showed no other signs of the disease.
It took another six years for the case to come to trial. In November of 2012, the case was ready to be heard in front of a jury, but the family asked that it be delayed, so it would be September of 2013 before the case would come before the court.
Eight days of testimony followed and within 45 minutes of closing, the jury returned its verdict, in favor of the hospital and doctor.
“They said that since the doctor had been fired and was no longer practicing in Alabama, they felt that he had been punished enough,” Atkins said.
They quickly filed an appeal, but the ruling was upheld. Atkins said she was told it was because her attorneys had not objected when the verdict was read.
It was a devastating blow for Atkins and her family, but something came up in the process of the trial that sparked a nearly five-year journey culminating in the recent passage of the law.
The day before the case was set to be heard before a jury, Atkins said she received a call from her attorney.
“He told me that there was a possibility that the defense would present his heart as evidence,” she said.
Atkins said she and her family were shocked to learn that the doctor who performed Justin’s autopsy had kept his heart for observation, but the family was never told. On top of that, it appears nowhere on the autopsy report that Justin’s heart was kept for observation.
“My first response was ‘can they really do that?’” she said. Apparently, in the state of Alabama, they can.
“I was told that while there was no law specifically giving them that power, there was no law prohibiting it,” she said.
After the trial, Atkins contacted the doctor who performed the autopsy, trying to find out what happened to the heart and if it would be possible to have the heart returned to the family.
Through an email, the doctor told her that she had left the forensics lab and that the heart was still there when she left. When she came to testify at the trial, she told Atkins, they couldn’t find Justin’s heart.
When she contacted the forensics lab, Atkins was told that it was their policy to dispose of items left at the laboratory after a period of five years.
“They took my minor son’s heart and kept it for 6 years, 4 months and 19 days,” Atkins said, “then they threw it away 27 days before the wrongful death trial like it was garbage.”
Since the forensics lab is in Mobile, Atkins said, she first went through the District Attorney’s office in Mobile County trying to get them to file charges against the forensics lab for failing to disclose to the family that they kept his heart and for disposing of his heart without attempting to contact the family, charges which amount to a Class C felony.
But because there is no law specifically stating that a lab could not keep organs for research purposes, Atkins said, she has had to go back through the Alabama Legislature to get the law on the books.
After fighting for months, Atkins said, she was finally sent a copy of the Laboratory Information System Management (LIMS) report, stating that Justin’s heart had been taken by the lab 17 hours and 15 minutes after his death and placed in a Mobile Evidence Storage Teaching Autopsy Room Cabinet.
“They kept my son’s heart for teaching purposes, and I would have been OK with that,” she said. “I just wish I had been told at the time instead of finding out years later after my son’s heart had been disposed.”
After five years of trying, the law was finally introduced by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison of Birmingham, a Democrat who represents Senate District 20.
“First, the law has to go before the Governmental Affairs Committee and has to be introduced by a Senator in order to come before the entire Senate,” Atkins said. “I literally called her on her way to the meeting asking her if she would introduce the bill.”
Senate Bill 22 was introduced on Feb. 2, 2021 and passed through the Committee by a 10-0 vote on Feb. 3, according to Congressional records. It then passed the full Senate by a vote of 29-0 on Feb. 3.
The bill was then introduced into the Alabama House of Representatives on March 10, where it passed by a vote of 97-0. It was signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey on April 7 and is scheduled to go into effect “on the first day of the third month following its passage,” which would be July 1.
“I’m just pleased as a mother that maybe somebody else won’t have to go through what I went through, and maybe the law will do what they say it will do,” Atkins said. “I know I’m not the only one out there that this has happened to and I just want people to know that this is out there and there is something they can do about it.”
And while she sees the law as a small victory, Atkins says she hasn’t given up the fight of getting justice for her son.
“The bill was first introduced to make it a felony for a forensics lab to keep organs without notifying the family, but that was taken out by the House,” Atkins said. “My hope is that one day we will be able to put that back in. In my opinion this is stealing and stealing should be considered a felony.”
She is also continuing the fight to introduce legislation that families seeking damages in a wrongful death lawsuit cannot sue for pain and suffering.
“The judge in our wrongful death case said that ‘as far as the state of Alabama is concerned, Justin Crooks’ life has no value,’” she said. “I want my son’s life to have meaning. I want anyone who loses a loved one in the state of Alabama to feel that their lives have meaning.”
Atkins continues to maintain a Facebook page at facebook.com/JustinsHeart2.
When asked if she felt the legislature gives her any sense of closure, Atkins said she doesn’t feel there will ever truly be closure.
“People use that word, but I don’t think I will ever really have closure,” she said. “There will always be this hole in my heart that was left by the death of my son.”
She said she is also fighting for animal rights legislation and while she recognizes that both the pain and suffering legislation and animal rights legislation are long shots, she will never give up fighting.
“As long as there is a breath left in me, I will keep fighting,” she said. “I have kept going this long and haven’t quit, so I’m not going to quit now.”