To the Point for 5/26/2005


IT’S AN INTERESTING DILEMMA. By the time this column is read this week, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will have made a decision that will affect many people across the state — and through generations to come.

Gregory Scott Johnson was supposed to die on Wednesday at the Indiana State Prison. He was to be executed for beating to death an 85-year old woman in 1985.

After beating and stomping on Ruby Hutslar, Gregory Johnson set her house on fire in an attempt to hide his vicious act.

A jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to die for his crime, and now — 20 years after he committed the crime — Gregory Johnson is going to pay the ultimate penalty.

This isn’t a column about the pros and cons of the death penalty. It isn’t a column about how long it takes for the “wheels of justice” to turn before a sentence is carried out.

This is a column about Debra Otis.

Debra Otis is Gregory Johnson’s sister. She is 48 years old, and she is seriously ill to the extent that she is living in a nursing home in Anderson, Indiana.

Debra Otis needs a liver transplant to survive — and her brother wants to donate part of his to save her.

The problem is that once those toxic chemicals stream through Gregory Johnson’s body on Wednesday morning, no part of him will be suitable for transplant. If he’s going to be the donor, it has to be prior to his execution.

So Gregory Johnson asked the Indiana Parole Board to grant him a stay of execution for at least 90 days so that he can be his sister’s donor. His blood type matches his sister’s, and everything appears to show that he is a perfect match.

Except he’s on death row.

Gregory Johnson never asked for his sentence to be commuted. He simply asked that it be delayed until after the surgery.

In a peculiar twist, the state would have to allow Gregory Johnson to recover back to full health before it would be allowed to execute him. In other words, he’s got to be the picture of health before that health can be taken away.

The Indiana Parole Board has unanimously denied Gregory Johnson’s request, with some members feeling that he is merely trying to divert attention from his brutal crime. Some doctors testified that Debra Otis’ condition is such that she will be getting a transplant from another donor in the near future anyway, so drawing a connection between her brother’s death and hers without his liver isn’t fair.

Still, there are some who see no problem with this. If Gregory Johnson is allowed to donate part of his liver to his sister, then the liver that she would otherwise get could be given to someone else on the list.

Some feel that Debra Otis has done nothing wrong, and denying her brother this request is really punishing his sister. Why not allow this guy to do this, since he’s gonna be executed, anyway?

What about the family of Ruby Hutslar? They have waited 20 years for the man who killed their mother and grandmother to get what they feel he deserves. If Gregory Johnson is allowed to be the donor, he will be forever remembered for his final act of generosity — not for his heinous act of violence.

If that happens, then Ruby Hutslar drifts into history.

It’s all an interesting question. Depending on which side you approach the problem from, you can come to a justified and rational decision. But then there are all sorts of details that could sway a decision.

One of the matters considered by the parole board in denying the request is the possibility of setting a precedent for the future and for other states.

As strange as it sounds: could prisons turn into organ harvesting farms? This country has a large number of people on death row right now, what if they were given execution dates based on the types of organs that they had?

Someone suddenly needs a kidney, and the Bureau of Prisons data bank shows that we’ve got a match on death row in Kansas — so he’s bumped to the top of the list.

Sort of like winning the lottery in reverse.

Could judges and juries lean toward the death penalty over other options because of the possibility of harvesting a person’s organs at a later date? Prisons could turn into warehouses of human parts.

Back to Gregory Johnson: since the law says that he has to return to full health before his sentence can be carried out, what if that never happens?

He could develop an infection. He could simply not recover to health; or perhaps his legal team could find doctors who would that he will never again be at full strength.

The thought of a brother donating part of his liver to his sister is a noble one; and I fully support organ donation. In fact, I am an organ donor.

But this is much more than that, and as cold as it may seem to some people, I believe that the Indiana Parole Board made the right decision in denying the request.