COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's governor delayed a condemned child killer's execution on Wednesday to study the feasibility of accommodating the unprecedented request of a state death row inmate to donate his organs.
Gov. John Kasich's decision came less than 24 hours before Ronald Phillips was scheduled to die for the rape and death of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. His lethal injection Thursday was to be the first time a new two-drug combination was tried in the U.S.
In stopping the execution, Kasich said he wanted to allow time to study the request the 40-year-old inmate made Monday to see if a donation could help someone else. Phillips' execution was reset to July 2.
Kasich specifically referred to a donation of non-vital organs, such as a kidney, which Phillips wants to donate to his mother. Phillips also wants to donate his heart to his sister.
Kasich said that while Phillips' crime was heinous, his willingness to donate organs and tissue could save another life and the state should try to accommodate a donation.
"I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen," Kasich said in a statement.
Some 3,500 people in Ohio and more than 120,000 nationally are currently awaiting organ donations, said Marily Pongonis, a spokeswoman for the Lifeline of Ohio organ donation program.
Ohio's prison medical policy accommodates organ donations, but prison officials said in rejecting Phillips' request Tuesday that he had not made it soon enough for officials to work out the logistics and security concerns.
A spokeswoman said the department moved swiftly to evaluate the request but determined it was not equipped to accommodate pre- or post-execution organ donations.
Kasich said if Phillips is found to be a viable donor to his mother, who has kidney disease and is on dialysis, or to others awaiting live transplants of non-vital organs, the stay would allow time for those procedures to be performed and for Phillips to be returned to death row.
It appears that Phillips' offer to donate his heart to his sister, who suffers a heart ailment, however, would not be possible under the governor's directive since the heart is a vital organ.
Pongonis said a heart cannot be donated after death. The person must still be alive when the organ is donated.
"It just wouldn't be possible," she said. "Organ donation occurs following brain death and the organs are maintained on a ventilator. When a prisoner is executed, the oxygen stops flowing, the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing."
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Delaware death row inmate Steven Shelton was granted a request in 1995 to donate a kidney to his mother while in prison, though he was not facing imminent execution like Phillips.
"This step by the governor puts it into a more normal discussion of an inmate, without any security problems, can help save another person and is that the right thing to do," he said. "With 24 hours to go before an operation had to be carried out, it definitely gets in the way of that process."
Vital organ donations raise larger ethical issues and have so far not been allowed during U.S. executions, Deiter said. They have occurred in China, he said.
Dieter, whose group opposes the death penalty, added: "If the whole idea is to save a life, there's one life to be saved simply by not executing the person at all."
Phillips made his request after the governor denied him mercy and Phillips had exhausted his other legal options. His attorney said it wasn't a delay tactic but an attempt to do good.
The state had left it up to Phillips' family whether the organs would be harvested after his death.
Phillips had been moved to Ohio's death house Wednesday, but a prisons spokeswoman said he was being returned to death row immediately after Kasich's stay was issued to await the assessment's findings.