After Kelvin Moore died in an Alabama prison, his body was returned without organs. His family wants answers — Andscape
MOBILE, Ala. – On July 21, 2023, Agolia Moore was already in bed when the chaplain at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest called to inform her that her youngest son, Kelvin Moore, had died from a fentanyl overdose. He was 43.
Agolia Moore was devastated by the news. She had spoken with her son that evening and couldn’t believe he died just 90 minutes after they’d gotten off the phone. Then, the chaplain asked her a question that made her even more suspicious about her son’s death.
“He said, ‘Who’s over him?’ ” Agolia Moore, 82, said when I met with her in Mobile. “I said, ‘I am. I’m his mother.’ I said, ‘He has no wife. No kids. I am over him.’ ”
Six days later, Moore’s body was delivered to his hometown, which is about 350 miles from the prison. Because he died while in custody, Moore’s body was first sent to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which conducts autopsies for the Alabama Department of Corrections.
But when Moore’s remains arrived in Mobile, the family’s mortician discovered that someone had taken out most of his internal organs.
Alabama has had the deadliest prisons in the nation for years. Moore was one of 337 inmates to die behind the walls of the state’s notoriously unsafe and draconian correctional facilities from October 2022 to October 2023, according to the department of corrections. Moore, who had been incarcerated since 1999 on two counts of attempted murder among other felonies, and 41 other inmates died at Limestone in the department of corrections’ 2023 fiscal year.
Alabama’s prisons are so overcrowded and understaffed that the U.S. Department of Justice is suing the state and its department of corrections in federal court, alleging the living conditions to be cruel and unusual, which the federal government says is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A trial is scheduled for November.
Thanks to inmate cellphone videos, the public has been getting a peek inside the walls of Alabama’s squalid prisons for several years. In August 2023, an inmate convicted of murder took over a section of the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County armed with a semi-automatic pistol. He streamed it all on Facebook Live, saying he was trying to draw attention to the barbaric conditions in which he and his fellow inmates lived.
But the newest revelations of potential organ harvesting seem to have captured the public’s attention more than almost anything else out of the system short of the execution of 58-year-old Kenneth Smith on Jan. 25. In that case, Alabama became the first jurisdiction in the nation to execute a prisoner with nitrogen gas.
Birmingham civil rights attorney Lauren Faraino is investigating the case of Moore’s missing organs. The controversy has ensnared the university’s medical school, a cherished Alabama institution, which reportedly has been doing autopsies for the state’s prison system since 2006.
“It’s a systematic abuse situation,” Faraino said. “UAB has been taking the organs of incarcerated people without family consent for years now, and we have a handful of families that have come forward who discovered that their loved ones were returned without their organs.
“But so many of these cases went completely unnoticed because families don’t typically think they need to do a second autopsy. Many of them can’t afford it, even if they wanted to.”
During the reporting of this story, Andscape interviewed two of the university’s former medical students who say they discovered that hospital school personnel were retaining some inmate organs without family consent in 2018. They said they tried to get the university to change its practices but were shut down.
There’s a shortage of organs in the United States for transplants, science, and medical education. Some universities buy body parts and organ specimens from so-called body brokers, companies that acquire bodies from families. They dissect them and sell parts of the bodies to medical schools and others.
“Even the top medical schools are sort of at the behest of body brokers and a technically legal set of entities that find ways to get bodies and body parts,” said Brendan Parent, a lawyer and director of transplant ethics and policy research at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “But they still get consent. Even these brokers still have to go to the family and say, ‘Hey, would you be willing to donate your loved one’s body to the advancement of science and education?’ ”
The former university students interviewed by Andscape, who asked not to be named for fear it could hurt their careers, said their complaints about the university using cadaver organs without consent led to an ethics committee hearing on the issue in September 2018. The former students said school administrators told them they had permission to harvest prisoner organs because they had a sign-off from wardens in the facilities where the inmates died.
Parent, however, said he’s not aware of any law that allows prison wardens to give consent to donate an inmate’s organs.
“The idea that the warden of a prison is authorizing the recovery of bodies and of organs without that individual’s authorization during their life and without the family’s authorization is a total moral failing and probably a legal failing, too,” said Parent.
In December 2023, similar allegations came forward about the department of corrections and the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. In that instance, Faraino filed a lawsuit for another family whose loved one died in custody after his body had been returned without its heart. The department of forensic sciences had conducted that autopsy, not the university, Faraino said.
Further, Faraino said Black families are more susceptible to being victimized in this way because 56% of Alabama’s 21,000 inmate population is Black, even though Black people account for only about 27% of the state’s population. Moreover, many of the state’s 12 men’s prison facilities are more than 100% over capacity. Meanwhile, hundreds of autopsies on inmates have been done at the university since 2006.
In July 2021, a bill signed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey went into effect designed to prevent forensic personnel from retaining organs after autopsies without permission from next of kin. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the state or the university from doing so.
“It was very, very clear – a medical examiner may not take an organ without family consent,” Faraino said.
In response to questions from Andscape, the university released a statement that said it had followed applicable laws regarding handling organs during the autopsy process.
“We only conduct autopsies with consent or authorization,” the statement said. “The autopsy practice is accredited by the College of American Pathologists and staffed by credentialed physicians who are certified by the American Board of Pathology. In an autopsy, organs and tissues are removed to best determine the cause of death. Autopsy consent includes consent for final disposition of the organs and tissues. UAB is among providers that – consistent with Alabama law – conduct autopsies of persons at the direction of the State of Alabama.”
When he was born on Dec. 29, 1979, Moore was Agolia and Johnnie Moore’s 10th child. His mom was a homemaker, and his dad was a supervisor at a paper company.
Moore’s six brothers and three sisters doted on their little brother, who was nearly a decade younger than his closest sibling.
“He was the apple of our eye,” said Simone Moore, one of his brothers. “He wasn’t just the youngest. He was our baby.”
The Moores were heavily involved in their Christian faith and the music ministry. Moore followed suit, playing the drums in the church. As a teen, he attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile. He eventually dropped out, getting a GED diploma at a community college instead.
By 1999, Moore was running with the bad people in Prichard and Mobile and using illegal substances.
“Just probably hanging with the wrong crowd,” is how Simone Moore described how his brother wound up getting in trouble with the law. “It happens like a magnet sometimes. And so you have to make the best choice, but whatever choice you make, they’re your choices.”
In 1999, Moore was convicted of two counts of attempted murder and one count each of burglary, assault and kidnapping. While specific details about his case weren’t available, court records confirmed Moore received a 99-year prison sentence.
His mother said that drug use was at the root of his issues and that the Mobile County judge who sentenced him gave explicit instructions for the prison system to treat his drug addiction but that never happened, she said.
“They sent him straight to hard prison,” Agolia Moore said.
Over the next 23 years, Moore would cycle through five of Alabama’s most notorious, maximum-security lockups — places that have been called “death traps,” “hellholes” and the “third world” by inmates and human-rights groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
He spent about 15 years at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility, about an hour north of his family’s home in Prichard, making it convenient for his mother and siblings to visit him regularly. At Holman, Agolia Moore said, her son earned the right to live in the honor dorm because of his good behavior. He received several certificates for taking whatever classes that were offered. Moore also mentored other inmates seeking their GED certificates, she said.
“Most of the guards liked him,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Kelvin’s a good guy.’ They spoke up for him.”
Eventually, he was moved to Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, four hours away from his family.
Agolia Moore couldn’t make it that far and settled for talking to her son by phone, which, she said, they did daily.
The university began performing autopsies for the prison system in 2006, according to a January 2017 research paper published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences by three of the school’s researchers. Back then, the death rate in the prisons was 80% less than what it was in 2023.
The article found that 421 inmate cases were referred to the university from June 2006 through July 10, 2015. Most of those deaths were ruled accidental as a result of drug toxicity. There were also nearly 180 deaths found to have been the result of natural causes, researchers said.
But in 2018, questions began to emerge regarding the university’s handling of prisoner organs post-autopsy inside the medical school.
A group of undergraduate medical students began questioning their pathology lab instructors over what they saw as a disproportionate number of organ specimens coming from deceased prisoners. Each specimen, the students told me, included a short biography, which did not name the person who had died, but gave some of their health history.
“We kept getting cases that read, ‘This is a set of lungs from a man who was incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility,’ ” one of the former students said. “ ‘These are the lungs of a 90-year-old man, who died of aspiration, pneumonia, secondary to Alzheimer’s disease in X, Y, Z correctional facility.’ ”
The students suspected that the families of the dead inmates hadn’t consented to the use of their relatives’ organs for medical education.
“I remember someone from the Department of Pathology writing down, ‘No more than one-third of the specimens came from incarcerated people,’ ” a former student said.
“And it seems like to them, they were saying that that wasn’t a disproportionate number, but to me, that stood out because one-third of the population of Alabama is not incarcerated.”
Eventually, a group of 13 medical students set up a meeting with the leaders in the autopsy division and the anatomic pathology division at the university.
The students said the professors denied any unethical behavior and asked them to research the issue. The students reviewed the existing scientific literature and compiled a 30-page deck, complete with three pages of citations, which Andscape obtained.
The students conducted further meetings around the medical school. They learned that the university was retaining selected inmate organs because prison wardens checked off a “no restrictions” clause on autopsy request forms.
“During one of these meetings, the course instructors disclosed that the autopsy request forms that are submitted for incarcerated people are signed by prison wardens because they are legally the next of kin at the time of death of an incarcerated person,” a former student told Andscape. “And so they shared with us that when the prison warden filled out the autopsy request form, they rarely check the box to opt out of organ use for educational and research purposes.”
Andscape obtained notes the students kept from 2018 in which they wrote that university officials told them they tended to use inmate specimens because those frequently had a more dramatic pathology than those of non-inmates.
“They keep them because it’s easier to teach lung pathology from a 2-inch tumor than a two-millimeter tumor,” one former student said. “People who are incarcerated have 2-inch tumors because they don’t get health care.”
About four months after this issue arose at the university, the students got an audience with the university’s in-house ethics committee. That meeting occurred on Sept. 20, 2018, before the medical school’s nine-person ethics panel. Two of the 13 students faced off in the meeting against Stephanie Reilly, the autopsy section head, and Silvio Litovsky, head of anatomic pathology.
The students had submitted their 30-page deck titled UAB Division of Autopsy: Ethical Considerations on Organ Use from Incarcerated Individuals. Significantly, the deck listed a potential solution to the students’ concerns: “Organs obtained without consent from the patient or their family should be returned to family members.”
Two faculty representatives contended that the university’s practice of not getting family consent was the right way to approach their work. According to a report from the meeting, the faculty members argued: “Organs removed from a cadaver’s body during autopsy are then used for the secondary purposes of teaching future physicians and thereby benefits future patients. If such uses are disallowed, these specimens would only be disposed of, serving no useful purpose.”
According to a report from that meeting, the committee ultimately sided with the faculty members, saying there was no “lack of ethicality in the retention and teaching uses of once-removed organs.”
In response to Andscape’s questions about inmates’ missing organs, the university issued a statement about the 2018 ethics inquiry.
“In 2018, students raised concerns that were informed by inaccurate data and information, and that was addressed directly with the students,” the statement said. “A panel of medical ethicists has reviewed and endorsed our protocols regarding autopsies conducted for incarcerated persons.”
On the day of his death, Moore had called his mother in Prichard around 6 p.m. Within 90 minutes, the chaplain at Limestone was on the phone, saying he was dead and asking “who was over” him.
In our interview, Agolia Moore, an energetic woman with a bright smile and down-home demeanor, crossed her legs as she sat on a couch at her son Simone’s house and shared her plans to seek justice for her son.
A few months after Moore’s death, Agolia Moore also lost her husband Johnnie, who liked to call her Lo. He instructed his wife not to let their son’s death go without some kind of fight.
“My husband was on his deathbed but he said, ‘Lo. There’s something wrong about what happened to Kelvin. It’s not right.’ He said, ‘Stick with it,’ and we’re going to stick with it,” she said.
Moore was Agolia Moore’s third child to die. When the family needs funeral services, they go to Samuel Jackson Mortuary in Mobile. And it was no different with Moore’s homegoing.
The mortuary picked up Moore’s body from the university on Nov. 27, 2023. When Jackson was preparing the body, he discovered that most of the organs were missing. He immediately reached out to the family.
“I said, ‘Hey, man, they kept most of his organs,’ ” Jackson told me when I visited his office recently. Jackson met with Simone Moore, who was livid, and the pair contacted the university. Simone Moore demanded the medical school return Moore’s organs to the family. However, Jackson said the supervisor they spoke with told him the organs were being kept for “further study.”
Jackson also said this case, and others concerning missing inmate organs, has captured the attention of funeral directors statewide, fueling unsubstantiated speculation of “a black market for organs.”
After Simone Moore and Jackson called the university demanding the return of Moore’s organs, his brother Michael Boman got a call from the chaplain at Limestone suggesting that the university be allowed to retain the organs. “Y’all sure y’all don’t want UAB to keep his body parts, his organs?” the chaplain said, according to Agolia Moore.
On July 28, a Friday, Simone and his sister Monica Kyser showed up at the university to retrieve their brother’s organs. The university gave Simone a red viscera bag, which they said contained the organs. Simone Moore took a picture of himself with the red bag on the university campus and another at a church once he and Monica drove back to Mobile.
Moore was buried the next day with the red bag, which the family never unsealed, placed in his casket.
The family doesn’t know for sure if his organs were in the bag. They never got them tested.
Instead, they say they’re planning a lawsuit and suspect a court might have to exhume Moore’s body to test what’s inside the bag.
Simone calls what happened to Moore’s organs “thievery.”
“You cannot just arbitrarily open someone up and take what you want out of their body,” he said. “It’s just an atrocious act to know you’ve done that without our permission and we would not have agreed to it on any terms. We don’t want this to happen to another family and it could be anyone, because everyone knows someone that’s incarcerated.”
Agolia Moore added, “But they just got the wrong family this time.”