Ohio stay of execution raises questions about inmate organ donations

It is a plot that crosses a science fiction novel with “Crime and Punishment,” and adds a touch of moral ambiguity.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich this week delayed the execution of a convicted child killer to allow time to consider the inmate’s request that he be allowed to donate his organs, in effect making a gift of life out of his certain death.

Ronald Phillips, 40, was scheduled to be executed Thursday by lethal injection. He was sentenced to die for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993.

On Monday, after all of his standard legal options had been exhausted, he asked to be allowed to donate a kidney to his ailing mother and his heart to his sister.

Kasich, a Republican, issued a stay of execution Wednesday. The execution has been rescheduled for July 2, 2014.


“I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen,” Kasich said in a statement. He said he wanted to allow time for medical experts to study whether Phillips could donate non-vital organs, such as a kidney, before being executed.

Ohio is one of the states that allows some inmates to donate organs, but in the case of Phillips, said it could not move the inmate so close to his execution date for security reasons.

“This step by the governor puts it into a more normal discussion of how an inmate, without any security problems, can help save another person and is that the right thing to do,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. “With 24 hours to go before an operation had to be carried out, it definitely gets in the way of that process.”

A Delaware inmate on death row was permitted to donate a kidney to his mother while in prison in 1995, though he was not facing imminent execution, Dieter said. There is also a famous case from Oregon where a death row inmate wanted to donate his organs after execution. The inmate, Christian Longo, explained his rationale in a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times. Oregon officials rejected his request.

No state has a policy that specifically allows a death row inmate to donate organs, though some countries, such as China, do, Dieter said. “It is a policy fraught with ethical and medical complications.”

There is a chronic shortage of donated organs in the United States, and donations by inmates could help. More than 120,000 people across the nation are waiting for some organ to be donated. There are more than 2 million inmates in custody.

But many say there is no way to ensure organ donations by inmates would be truly voluntary. There are also medical questions regarding the health of inmates and compatibility with those needing the organs.

The situation gets even more complicated when the more than 3,000 inmates on death row in the United States are considered. The deadline imposed by capital punishment compresses the time frame and raises even more questions, according to Dieter.

“You get a slippery slope and questions about whether the legal process is being interfered with by external pressures,” he said.


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