Punishment and Death

I’m sorry for not posting for a long time.  I don’t have a good excuse.  At any rate, I just read an interesting essay, and it made me want to write.

In this weekend’s New York Times, Christian Longo, a man who sits on Oregon’s death row, makes a reasonable and convincing argument that prisoners on death row ought to be given the right to donate their organs after execution.  Longo explains that he is a healthy 37 year-old who will be executed soon but that his prison (as well as many others) refuses to allow organ donation, even though the method of lethal injection could be changed to a formula that would not damage the organs.  Longo addresses several of the key arguments against prisoner donations, including issues of safety and security, as well as the question of prisoner consent, and he provides valid and intuitively plausible responses that support his case.  In the end, I was persuaded by his arguments.

Though Longo is quite persuasive, pointing  out that “just one inmate could save up to eight lives by donating a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and other transplantable tissues,” I still felt a little wary of finding myself in complete moral agreement with a man who begins his essay by explaining, “Eight years ago I was sentenced to death for the murders of my wife and three children.  I am guilty.”  If I were a better person I would have resisted the urge to Google “Christian Longo” until after I had had some time to think over the validity of his arguments.  Unfortunately, I am not.  Immediately after finishing the essay, I read about how Longo murdered his wife and three children, tossed their bodies, and fled to Mexico.  Then I read about how he originally failed to confess to the murders of two of his children.  I wanted to find something about how Longo was diagnosed as a sociopath or at the very least a delusional psychotic, but instead, I read that he was “by all accounts a bright, extroverted, socially skilled, good-looking young man with marvelous potential.”  I learned that Longo had grown up in a dysfunctional home and was prone to deception and rule-breaking, but his own essay suggests that these environmental setbacks never stopped him from learning the difference between right and wrong and the value of atoning for moral errors.

What troubles me about Christian Longo is not the possibility that he is a sociopath playing some elaborate game of pretend.  I think it is quite possible that Longo is genuinely remorseful that he killed his two and three year-old daughters, his four-year old son, and his wife, and that he dumped their bodies in shallow graves off the Oregon Coast and then left for vacation in Cancun.  And, if Longo is genuinely remorseful because he fully understands the moral depravity of what he did, then perhaps he sees donating his organs to save the lives of other innocent people- mothers and children, maybe- as the type of penance that could give him a sense of moral redemption for the brief remainder of his life.  (I don’t believe in heaven and hell, so I don’t care if Longo thinks this will buy him eternal salvation; it won’t.)

Here’s what’s bothering me:  Even though I’m a bleeding-heart-abolish-the-death-penalty-type, I’m just not sure that Christian Longo deserves to feel like he somehow balanced the scales of cosmic justice by saving other lives after his death.   His organs won’t be of any use to him, and he has no choice about dying, so I hardly see his posthumous donation as a sacrifice of any moral weight.  But HE might feel differently.  In fact, Longo explicitly states that he has “a wish to make amends.” Even though Longo makes a very convincing argument about the good that will come of allowing death-row inmates to donate their organs, the thought that people like Longo might see organ donation as a way of genuinely making amends for their moral errors is troubling to me.

The prison told Longo, “The interests of the public and condemned inmates are best served by denying the petition.”  I think Longo demonstrates that he is capable of giving informed consent, so I don’t understand why it is not in his interest to donate the organs.  It is also quite obviously in the interest of the public.    This leads me to the conclusion that the real controversy behind prisoner organ donation has more to do with a fear that allowing generosity on the part of prisoners sends the wrong message.  So, I’m going to make one more argument in service to Longo’s plea by addressing an issue that he couldn’t touch.  If anybody deserves anything, then Christian Longo deserves to feel bad about what he did.  But even though the quality and quantity of Longo’s punishment feels relevant in considering whether he should have the right to donate his organs (or, even if it IS somewhat relevant), the good of organ donation far outweighs any benefit to denying a murderer solace, whether he deserves it or not.   I don’t know if there is as much injustice in a child dying of kidney failure as a child being murdered by her father, but I’m inclined to think that it is just as wrong to deny an innocent person a freely-offered, life-saving organ as it is to intentionally bring about that person’s death.  If an innocent life is so valuable that we sentence people to death for taking it, then surely the preservation of an innocent life is more valuable than the feelings and thoughts of a dying man.

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