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Committee hears life for life bill

March 25, 1998
By: Emily Goodin
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - In its first official appearance before the state legislature, Rep. Chuck Graham's "life for a life bill" encountered resistance from committee members and members of the organ donation community.

"I believe in my heart that this is a gross idea of what we're doing to people," said Rep. Glenn Hall, R-Grain Valley. "Could we be allowing a criminal to purchase his justice?"

"It's a new idea and it's different," Graham, D-Columbia replied. "Even if this bill dies in committee we've at least brought to light issues on organ donation."

Graham testified before the House Criminal Law Committee on Wednesday, about eighteen hours after Missouri executed Milton Griffin El by lethal injection.

His bill would allow death-row inmates to commute their sentence to life in prison in exchange for a kidney or bone marrow donation.

It would require prisoners to join the program within 1-2 years of conviction, pass a medical exam and give up their rights to an appeal. The prisoners would return to the same judge that sentenced them for permission to enter the program.

"If the victim's family doesn't want them to be a part of this program, I don't know a judge that will go against the family," Graham said.

Graham says the program is voluntary but opponents say it's a form of coercion.

"The state offers a deal that is too sweet for anyone to pass up on," said Dawn Harris of the Heart of America Bone Marrow Industry. "Coercion is not necessarily a negative."

Harris also said that offering prisoners this option is a form of compensation, something most organ donators don't get and that it has the potential to undermine the program.

Mary Rademan, a mother of two diabetic boys - one of whom has one of her kidneys, said it's an option transplant patients should have.

"If you're at the point of needing a transplant you don't care where it's coming from," she said.

But Harris, whose brother died of cancer, said if he were here, he say the good of the transplant victims as a whole is more important.

"The life for a life" legislation has become the subject of legal, medical and ethical debates across the nation. Graham has appeared on MSNBC, the Today Show, Fox News, National Public Radio and even had Jay Leno making jokes about it.

"We've had an international discussion about the role of the death penalty no matter what the committee decides," he said. "The idea will survive even if the bill does not."

But committee members asked if there wasn't another way to promote organ donation.

"There's a lot less intrusive ways to get people to donate organs," said Committee Chairman Craig Hosmer, D-Springfield. "I'd be happy to work on a substitute of this bill if we could get rid of most of the bill."

The committee must still vote whether or not to send the bill to the House floor and members admit its chances are not good.

"It seems that it's wrong to let someone out of the death penalty because they donate an organ," Hosmer said.

Missouri currently has 86 people on death row with an average appeal time of ten and a half years, according to Graham.