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Medical Examiner Criticized For Removing Executed Prisoners’ Brain Tissue

October 7, 1985

STARKE, Fla. (AP) _ A medical examiner’s removal of brain tissue from executed prisoners for scientific studies on violent behavior ″sounds something out of the 1800s,″ a state corrections official said.

Families of the dead men have condemned Alachua County Medical Examiner Dr. William Hamilton for removing the tissue without permission from the families of the dead men, and Gov. Bob Graham and the state attorney’s office have ordered investigations, the Florida Times-Union & Jacksonville Journal reported Sunday.

Hamilton has removed brain tissue from 11 of the 13 men who died in Florida’s electric chair since 1979, the newspaper said.

Hamilton gave the almond-shaped amygdala, found at the back of the brain’s temporal lobe, to Dr. Christiani Leonard, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Florida.

Ms. Leonard, who said Hamilton hired her to help perform the state-mandated autopsies on executed prisoners, said she has used the brain matter to study whether childhood head trauma is related to violence later in life.

Under Florida law, organs of the deceased can be removed without family authorization only to determine the cause of death.

″It sounds like something out of the 1800s,″ said David Brierton, inspector general for the state Department of Corrections, who said he knew nothing of the experiments when contacted Saturday.

″That would be a ghoulish prospect. That would be terrible.″

Hamilton defended the removal of the amygdala, one of the centers in the brain for aggressive behavior.

″In the case of executed prisoners, violent behavior usually led to the acts for which the death sentence was imposed,″ he said. ″Observation of the microscopic structure of the amygdala is distantly related to the cause of death.″

″I just think it’s bizarre,″ said Ann Palmes, mother of Timothy Palmes, who was electrocuted in November following his conviction on murder charges. ″The state more or less used him as a guinea pig. They should get the OK of the inmate before he is executed.

″Or they could have asked me,″ she said. ″They knew where I was. There was no reason not to ask.″

The Rev. Joseph Ingle of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons is a frequent visitor to Florida death row inmates, and said he finds the tissue removal deplorable.

″Not only is the state killing someone, but they’re desecrating the body as well,″ Ingle said.

But some medical authorities disagreed.

″This has nothing whatsoever to do with the function of the medical examiner,″ Dr. Arthur Caplan of the Hastings Center, a biomedical ethics research and study center in New York, told the Times-Union. ″The person didn’t die because they had an unhealthy amygdala.″

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