BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour acted unethically when he suspended a woman’s life sentence on condition she donate a kidney to her sister, a prominent transplant surgeon said on Thursday.
Barbour agreed to free sisters Gladys and Jamie Scott, who have served 16 years of a double life sentence for an armed robbery in which nobody was hurt and $11 was stolen. The case has drawn national attention.
A condition of Gladys Scott’s release is that she donate a kidney to her sister in an operation that should be performed urgently, Barbour said in a statement on Wednesday. She had agreed to be a donor for her sister, who requires dialysis.
Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, is considering whether to run for president in 2012.
Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, criticized the decision to impose a condition for the release.
“While Governor Barbour probably meant nothing nefarious by this decision, what he did was unethical and possibly illegal. He is unaware of the procedures of transplantation that include making sure donors are not coerced,” Shapiro said.
There were also medical reasons why such a condition was inappropriate, not least that Barbour may not know whether Jamie Scott is suitable or healthy enough for a transplant, said Shapiro, chair of the ethics committee of the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing.
Shapiro also questioned whether Barbour ordered Scott released because her treatment was a financial burden on the state.
“If either party could be turned down for medical concerns, the transplant team would feel pressured to continue with the transplant or send them back to prison. It is a position they should not be put in,” he said.
The sisters were convicted of robbing at gunpoint two men driving them to a nightclub in Forest, north Mississippi, in 1993. They had no prior criminal record. Each was sentenced to two life terms.
“I have issued two orders indefinitely suspending the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott,” Barbour said in a statement.
“The incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi,” Barbour said.
The Mississippi Parole Board reviewed the sisters’ request for a pardon and recommended he neither pardon them, nor commute their sentence, Barbour said.
At his request, the board then reviewed whether to suspend the sisters’ sentences indefinitely, which is tantamount to parole and concurred with Barbour’s decision, he said.
Supporters of the Scotts including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) questioned the role the women played in the crime and said the fact they are black played a part in the judge’s decision to impose such harsh sentences.
“The presiding judge in the trial, Judge Marcus Gordon, has a history of racially biased rulings and even the prosecutor of the case” became an advocate for the sisters, said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous in a statement.
The sisters were eligible for parole in 2014. A release date will be determined by the state’s prison department.
Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; Editing by Matthew Bigg and Jerry Norton