Image: Christian Longo
Pat Sullivan  /  AP file
A Harris County Sheriff's deputy escorts Christian Longo, left, into court in Houston Jan. 15, 2002, in Houston. The Oregon man was captured in Mexico and later convicted on charges of killing his wife and three young children a month earlier and dumping their bodies into local waters. Nearly a decade later, Longo is waging a death-row campaign to donate his organs after execution.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 4/21/2011 9:33:07 AM ET 2011-04-21T13:33:07

An Oregon death row inmate is mounting an aggressive behind-bars campaign to donate his organs after he’s executed, in part to repay society for the gruesome murders of his wife and three young children.

Christian Longo, 37, says he wants to do more to take responsibility for killing his family and dumping their bodies in coastal bays nearly a decade ago than simply accepting execution by lethal injection.

“Why go out and waste your organs when you have the potential to go out and save six to 12 lives?” reasons Longo, whose voice is measured and articulate on the phone from Oregon State Penitentiary cell DRU31 in Salem.

His request to drop his appeals in exchange for being allowed to donate organs has been flatly denied by state corrections officials, who refuse to negotiate with a killer. It’s been denounced in principle as “morally reprehensible” by the nation’s organ donation officials and medical ethicists.

Plastic-covered photos of MaryJane Longo, at left, and, in photo at right, from left to right, her children Zachery Longo, Madison Longo and Sadie Ann Longo, sit on the dock at a makeshift memorial in Newport, Ore., in January 2002. Husband and father Christian Longo was later convicted of killing all four.

“I don’t think we want to be the kind of society that takes organs from prisoners,” said Dr. Paul R. Helft, director of the Charles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics and Indiana University. "To do so would be to use unfree prisoners as a means to an end."

Lobbying in media, on Facebook
Longo’s quest, which boasts its own website and Facebook page and was featured in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, renews questions about whether changing inmate donation policies could help ease the nation’s dire shortage of transplantable organs — or whether it relies on an innately manipulative or vulnerable population of prisoners.

“It’s impossible to be sure that a person who is behind bars is making a decision they would make while walking down the street,” says Jeffrey Orlowski, executive director of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, the non-profit group that represents the nation’s 58 regional groups.

Ironically, a survey of organ transplant centers nationwide reveals that while taking organs from executed inmates is prohibited, accepting organs from inmates who die of other causes while in custody is permitted, although rarely and under strict circumstances.

Longo probably has a better chance of donating his liver if he's injured or has a stroke in prison and dies later at a local hospital.

In such a situation, even the Oregon Department of Corrections couldn’t stand in the way, spokeswoman Jeanine M. Hohn says.  “We would not hinder any such donations.”

Donations after inmates died of injury or illness while in custody have been allowed, though rarely, even in Longo's region, said Mike Seely, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank. "It's happened once or twice in the 20 years I've been here," Seely says.

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Transplant advocates, including those who've received organs, say increasing the supply of available organs is the bottom line, and that willing prisoners should be allowed to donate to often-desperate recipients.

"I wouldn't have cared what heart I got," says Hiland Doolittle, a 65-year-old writer from Albany, N.Y., who waited two years before his 2009 transplant. "When you can't tie your shoes, you know you're at the end of your rope."

Opinion: Organs from inmates: That idea should be DOA

“If someone is sick enough, long enough and wants to live, they’ll gladly take an organ from someone who was incarcerated,” says Joanne Kelley, president of TripleHeart, Inc.,an Atlanta-based support group for heart transplant patients. Her 58-year-old husband, “Kel” Kelly, died in 2008 after living with a donor heart for nine years.

But death row opponents, doctors and ethicists counter that larger societal questions are at stake that supersede individual demands for organs.

'Too many problems'
“I don’t think it’s a calculus that this life can be taken so this life can be spared,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit group that opposes capital punishment. “I think you’ve got to look at the larger picture. The system that gets put in place once the green light is given for that has too many problems.”

But Longo figures that he alone could save eight lives through his death, offering his heart, lungs kidneys, liver and other tissues. That would put a dent right away in Oregon’s waiting list, which includes 768 requests, including 13 hearts, 122 livers and 628 kidneys.

And it could bring down the national waiting list, which on Tuesday totaled 110,772 candidates, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

“To be able to save so many lives, that means a lot to me as well,” says Longo.

Such a statement is difficult to square with a man convicted of strangling his 34-year-old wife, MaryJane, and their 2-year-old daughter, Madison, stuffing their bodies in suitcases and then throwing them into coastal waters. He was also convicted of murdering Zachery, 4, and Sadie Ann, 3, by tying rock-filled pillow cases to their ankles and throwing them into icy Oregon inlets in late December 2001.

And it's hard to hear from a man who went back to work at his job at a local Starbucks outlet in the days after the murders before fleeing to Mexico, where he told people he was a New York Times reporter, went swimming and snorkeling, and struck up a brief romance with a woman, according to court records. When he was caught, he denied the killings.

“I didn’t want people to believe it was something I was capable of,” says Longo. “The past is the past. Essentially, over time, my conscience got to me.”

Donating his organs won't atone for the murders, says Longo, who now claims he believes his death sentence is just. It would allow him to do some good, however, perhaps providing comfort to his family.

"This is a way that I won't fail," he says."It does do something for me from a psychological standpoint."

As it stands now, Longo has an uphill fight to donate his own organs — or change the system to allow donations from the nation’s 2.4 million incarcerated prisoners, including the 3,261 on the nation’s death rows in 2010.

Others have tried — and failed — including a convicted killer in Texas, Jonathan Nobles, whose 1998 request to donate his organs after execution was flatly denied as well.

No organs from executed prisoners
The use of organs from executed prisoners is censured by the United Network for Organ Sharing, which guides organ donation policies in the United States. The group denounced the practice in 2007 and hasn’t budged on the matter, says spokeswoman Anne Paschke.

Living prisoners may be allowed to donate organs, but it’s decided on a case-by-case basis at the state and federal levels, officials say. Typically such donations are limited to immediate family members when there’s a confirmed organ match, with the inmate and recipient’s families agreeing to foot the bill for all medical and security costs.

In Colorado, for instance, Johnny Andino, a 27-year-old inmate at Centennial Correctional Facility, is waiting to hear whether he'll be allowed to donate a kidney to his autistic cousin in California, Brandon Dekeado, also 27. Chuck Dekeado, 50, an Oregon man who is uncle to both young men, says he has been working desperately to faciliate the donation.

It's not yet clear whether Andino's kidney would be a good match, or who would pay the costs for the operations because the state won't foot the bill, says Katherine Sanguinetti, corrections spokeswoman. If it works, however, Chuck DeKeado says it would provide redemption for Andino, a convicted car thief, and survival for his ailing cousin.

"This is saving both my nephews' lives," he adds.

Part of the problem with accepting organs from prisoners, especially after executions, is a practical one, says Dr. Robert Metzger, past medical director with UNOS.

Organ donations must be performed in hospitals and executions are held in prisons. The three-drug cocktail used in lethal injection may render organs unsuitable for transplant. And, with high rates of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, jail and prison inmates are considered high-risk donors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and subject to even stricter testing and lifestyle scrutiny than typical organ donors.

But the core of the problem is philosophical, says Orlowski, director of the association of organ procurement organizations. The specter of China, where two-thirds of donated organs are harvested from prisoners, haunts U.S. transplant experts.

“As a country, we have a high ethical and moral standard that we shouldn’t do things to people no matter how disadvantaged they are,” Orlowski says.

That argument frustrates Longo, who petitioned the state of Oregon twice last year to change its position on inmate organ donation. First, Longo asked the state to allow executed inmates to change the method of execution to spare organs, allowing a single drug for lethal injection, a powerful dose of anesthetic, instead of the three-drug protocol that also includes a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops the heart.

Longo won't drop appeals
Then he proposed that he would drop his pending appeals — which could stave off execution for a decade or more — in exchange for being allowed to donate his organs after death. In that scenario, Longo says he would be executed within 90 days.

In both cases, corrections officials denied Longo’s requests, declaring that the best interests of the public and inmates were served by allowing organ donation by inmates under the case-by-case basis that now exists.

“We do not have interest as a department in negotiating with Mr. Longo,” says Hohn, the spokeswoman.

Longo now says he won’t drop appeals that seek to challenge his death sentence and overturn two of four convictions. He says he’d rather use the time to lobby for changes in inmate donation policies.

“I want to continue to give it everything I have to give it the best effort possible,” he says.

Critics claim that Longo is simply saving his own skin while also seeking the attention and ego-gratification that a killer craves.

To them, Longo acknowledges that it would help him to know that he achieved a significant goal, even while confined in a 6-foot by 8-foot cell. But, he says, so what?

"It may set a precedent. It just makes sense. It's practical," he says, adding later: "It will be a big deal not only to have saved lives, but to accomplish something from this position."

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