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In a last-minute appeal for clemency, an Indiana man on death row is seeking to stay his May 25 execution so that he can become a liver donor for his terminally ill sister, raising a number of legal and ethical issues. Lawyers for Gregory Scott Johnson have filed a clemency petition asking Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to commute his death sentence or stay the execution. “Everybody is skeptical about the timing of this,” said Johnson’s attorney, Michelle Kraus, a Fort Wayne, Ind., solo practitioner. Kraus said her client received only a 30-day notice of his execution on April 25. His sister, Debbie Otis, is a diabetic with steatohepatitis. She was taken off the liver transplant list in March after she fell and developed an infection in her back. “Scott had talked about being a liver donor back in March,” Kraus said. Doctors told Kraus that the toxins that will be used to execute Gregory Scott Johnson by lethal injection on May 25 could render his liver unusable for transplant after his death. But they have indicated that it may be possible to perform a “split-liver” or “segmented” transplant that would require Johnson’s execution to be postponed. Johnson was allowed to present his case to the parole board at Indiana State Prison on May 16. A public hearing was scheduled for May 20, with a vote by the parole board expected afterward. The board is then expected to give its recommendation to the governor. At press time, the governor’s spokeswoman, Jane Jankowski, confirmed that Daniels would not act until he has the board’s recommendation. His decision is expected early this week. There have been similar requests in death row cases in Delaware and Florida, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington. “It’s not an issue that comes up a lot,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s executive director, “but it’s not unprecedented.” Delaware granted a stay of execution so that a death row inmate could donate a kidney to his mother, but Florida refused a similar request in the case of a death row prisoner’s dying brother. Johnson’s case is a little more unusual because it involves a liver transplant, say lawyers. “But that is why you have executives with clemency and date-setting power,” adds Dieter. “Saving a life is a good claim.” Joseph L. Hoffman, who teaches criminal law at the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington, agreed that this is the kind of ethical and political question that should go to the governor. But Hoffman said he doubts Johnson has a viable legal challenge if the governor denies the request. “I don’t think any court would take seriously the claim by the donor or recipient that he has a legal right to force the state to let him do this,” Hoffman said. But if the governor approves the request, the state may be able to challenge it, he said. Calls to the office of the Indiana attorney general were not returned. Johnson has been on death row since 1986 for killing 82-year-old Ruby Hutslar while burglarizing her home.

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