One death row inmate supporting another in organ-donation fight

Death-row murderer Christian Longo, seen here during a 2003 court ate, is offering support to Ronald Phillips' bid to donate his organs when he's executed. Bruce Ely / Pool via AP, file

An Ohio convict's quest to donate his organs when he's executed is getting support from an Oregon death row prisoner who made a similar bid two years ago.

Christian Longo, who was sentenced to die for murdering his wife and three small kids in 2001, told NBC News in an email that he reached out to Ronald Phillips, whose execution was just postponed so his organ-donation offer can be studied.

The "contact was rejected," Longo said. But he's still lobbying for Phillips to be given the chance to give away his organs at death — a proposal that experts say is an ethical and logistical minefield.

Ronald Phillips's execution has been postponed while the state studies his offer to donate his organs. AP

“With a little bit of careful planning and coordination, lives can be saved from someone who has to die – up to eight lives with organs, and the enhancement of dozens more lives with tissues and tendons,” Longo wrote.

“There is no need to be in a rush to execute Mr. Phillips, who will die regardless. Not when there are so many innocently waiting on transplant lists for healthy donors who may die otherwise. To deny this is a perpetuated tragedy,” Longo said. 

Longo's donation offer has been repeatedly turned down by Oregon authorities, and all executions are on hold anyway after Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium last year.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich — who had turned down appeals for clemency — announced a surprise decision to stay Phillips' execution for seven months so he can study the feasibility of death-row donations.

Phillips, 40, who was convicted of raping and beating to death his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993, said he hoped to give his kidneys and heart to sick relative or other members of the public who need organs.

Medical ethicists say allowing such donations could give juries and judges an incentive to impose the death penalty and that prisoners could be coerced into giving away their organs.

Organs are usually removed from people who are brain dead but whose bodies are otherwise functioning, and some experts say it would be impossible to replicate that scenario during an execution.

"The only options for executing someone to obtain vital organs is to either shoot them in the head or chop their head off and have a team of doctors ready to step in immediately," said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Theoretically, he said, the method of execution could be the removal of the organs under anesthesia.

"The problem is no doctor is going to do it," he said. "It violates all medical ethics and now you're making the doctor the executioner."

Longo — who has a website and a Facebook page for his campaign, Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone — is also pushing states to allow prisoners who are not condemned to donate non-vital organs, like a single kidney. He helped Utah inmates push for a new Utah law, passed in April, that allows them to register as organ donors.

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