Death Row Inmate Can’t Donate Organs — Too Expensive

Michael Demmons points us to the interesting case of Gregory Scott Johnson, an Indiana death row inmate who wants to donate his liver to his dying sister but is being denied on the grounds that it would require him to undergo expensive tests that at taxpayer expense.

There’s another complication:

Many organs used in transplants come from the bodies of those recently deceased, but in Johnson’s case, the chemicals used in his lethal injection would make the liver and kidneys unusable. He has asked prison officials if he could be electrocuted instead, in which case it might be possible to reuse the organs.

That request is not likely to be granted because the equipment needed for an electrocution is no longer in place at the prison. State law has changed and now requires executions to be carried out by injection rather than in the electric chair.

The alternative is a “split liver” operation but there are expenses associated with that as well.

Michael sees some eerie parallels with the Terri Schiavo case, where a lot of taxpayer money was spent trying to keep someone alive who purportedly wanted to die.

It’s an interesting conundrum and my inclination would be to do what was necessary to keep Johnson’s 38-year-old sister alive here. Still, the Department of Corrections raises a good point here.

If Deborah Otis’ brother were not an inmate of the state, would we pay any of the costs for her to get a liver transplant?

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jem says:

    I’d say, do the tests…and if he’s suitable, give him his final meal far enough in advance that it wouldn’t interfere, get his final statement before they put him under, harvest the liver, then add enough sedative to the drip to end his life.

    Call it a win-win-win: he gets to help his sister, she benefits, and the state is done with him and he won’t be leaving prison to commit more heinous crimes of the sort that earned him his stay on death row.

  2. Steve says:

    If Deborah Otis’ brother were not an inmate of the state, would we pay any of the costs for her to get a liver transplant?

    The short answer is: probably.

    The thing is that even with out insurance or lots of personal wealth people get the necessary medical treatement necessary to live. This is one of the reasons our systems is “broken”. This kind of thing wreaks havoc on incentives (e.g. buy insurance) and can drive up costs.

  3. Years ago, science fiction writer Larry Niven hypothesized organ donation as a form of legal execution. Imagine the improvement to the transplant organ supply if organs were taken from living convicts in a controlled medical environment, instead of being hurriedly snatched from victims of accidents or violence.

  4. Sherri says:

    I agree with Jem. And set up something that if prisoners donate -all- their organs, then the organ donation affiliates that profit from the other donated organs should absorb the costs of the familial donation. That would remove one person from the liver list, would make more organs and tissues available to others, and hopefully more healthy prisoners (death-row or otherwise) might consider donating if they knew it would benefit one of their loved ones.

    If this ever was considered, I suppose potential recipients should be given the choice to recieve a prisoners’ organs. I can’t imagine many would refuse, but some might depending on what their crime/s was/were.

  5. Faith says:

    Would the businessman that offered to save Terri Schiavo please consider donating that million dollars (or less) to fund this life-saving procedure? I say, let this sad death serve a purpose beyond punishment.

  6. Cricket says:

    This is too macabre. China already does this with
    political prisoners. Sorry, but while I agree with
    the INDIVIDUAL’S decision, to make it a matter of
    routine for those awaiting capital punishment…
    sorry. You have to draw the line somewhere.

    As a taxpayer, I would pay for it…let her get some
    good from it.

  7. Anderson says:

    The Dread Pundit Bluto doesn’t mention that, in Niven’s story, the donor-criminal who narrates the story was charged with the capital crimes of driving over the speed limit and parking in a no-parking zone (or offenses to that effect, it’s been a while). The none-too-subtle point being that when the public has a vested interest in seeing “n” number of executions to keep the organ banks filled, then that’s what will happen.

  8. Fersboo says:

    Niven also discusses lotteries in order to have children, pacifists who almost let humankind die, instantaneous travel and aliens that look like sock-puppeted Sigsmund the Sea Monster. What’s your point Anderson?

  9. Anderson says:

    What’s your point Anderson?

    I think it follows the words “The none-too-subtle point being …,” except that I obviously erred about the “none-too-subtle” part. My bad.

  10. Steve says:

    Anderson’s point is about perverse incentives. That since there is a demand for various organs there is also an implicit demand for more criminals to be convicted of capital crimes. Now, I haven’t read the Niven story in question, but it seems a bit of a characiture that such perverse incentives would lead to speeding and illegal parking as being capital offenses.

    However, what if it was made into policy that the organs of those put to death by the state were harvested? Would there be more of an incentive on juries/judges to convict since they can assuage any possible feelings of guilt due to uncertainty with the argument, “Well his organs went to a good cause.”

  11. Anderson: Niven wrote many stories using the organ donor scenario. Niven also wrote of false advertising becoming a capital crime. In a way it almost looks as though Niven were conducting a reductio ad absurdum argument with himself.

    I mentioned only the concept, not the author’s opinion of the relative merits of his own idea.

    Niven may be right; organ donation as a form of execution might lead to a slippery slope leading to jaywalking being a capital offense. But I doubt it.