Legal quandary was resolved this time, but it will come up again.
Would you risk letting a killer go free if it meant the chance to save several lives?
That moral and legal tug-of-war is at the heart of a lawsuit filed against two Allen County officials last week by the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization. The case stems from the agency seeking access to the body of a 20-year-old man who had been declared brain dead after being beaten in an Ullyot Drive apartment June 2 – but didn't officially die until the next day.
The 23-year-old Indianapolis organization, which worked with 150 organ donors last year, settled its differences with Prosecutor Karen Richards and Coroner Jon Brandenberger after William Fett Jr.'s organs became available. But although such cases are rare, future struggles between justice and medicine seem inevitable unless both sides learn from recent events.
According to the organization's lawsuit, there never should have been a conflict in the first place: Fett (identified as “John Doe” for confidentiality reasons) had consented to be an organ donor while alive; his family also consented; organs may become unusable 36 hours after a donor's death; state law requires the coroner to cooperate with transplant efforts; and, perhaps most significant of all, “allowing organ procurement to proceed will not interfere with the medical examination of the cause of the decedent's death.”
Of course, if it were that simple, the lawyers never would have gotten involved.
Richards was reluctant to discuss the case on the record, except to say she's asked for a review of the county's legal rights and obligations before deciding how to handle the next case – which she's sure will come.
As important as the lives of organ and tissue recipients are, society's need to catch, prosecute and punish criminals is also legitimate. And in a homicide investigation, no evidence is more important than the body itself. Because most murder victims are not immediately found, and organs and tissue are best harvested while the donor is still breathing, few homicide cases produce viable donations. But because Fett clung to life for more than 24 hours after being hit in the head more than 20 times, he proved an exception to the rule.
And as Richards noted, autopsies are a key component of any homicide investigation, and not just to prove cause of death. But it's impossible to do a thorough autopsy when potentially clue-bearing organs are in somebody else.
There may have been something else at play. A source indicates that Richards expressed concern that Fett's organs might endanger recipients. But Sam Davis, the organ network's director of professional services, said donor organs are thoroughly tested, with recipients given the option of rejecting organs or tissue from donors believed to be “high risk.” Even so, he conceded, some recipients have become ill from donated organs.
Davis said he couldn't remember a lawsuit like the one filed last week, but downplayed any conflict with local officials, saying the timing of events in this case complicated the outcome. Fett was pronounced dead on a Friday but his autopsy wasn't completed until Monday, and the weekend made it difficult to contact all parties in the case, he said. A 22-year-old man and 17-year-old boy have been charged with murder in the case.
“Citizens expect due process to move forward, and we don't in any way say our needs outweigh the need of public services,” Davis said. “But we do expect dialogue (with officials).”
A single donor can provide up to eight organs, and Davis' not-for profit group helped place about 600 donated organs last year. Most organs go to patients in Indiana or the region, but the organization is also part of a nationwide network of procurement agencies.
Ideally, there would never be a conflict between the needs of the criminal justice system and the needs of people with serious and even life-threatening illnesses. But because Davis and Richards seem to differ on the manner in which the bodies of homicide victims should be made available for transplant – if at all – both sides should try to establish clear and mutually acceptable procedures to prevent future disputes.
The innocent should not suffer in order to punish the guilty.