OPEN LETTER TO THE FAMILY AND
OF A CONDEMNED
Hello family and/or friends of a prisoner on death row,
I write to you rather than to the prisoner
himself or herself
because the inmate might not be permitted
to read this letter directly from the Internet.
But if you know someone on death row,
who might be interested in donating organs after execution,
please feel free to share all of the information in this letter.
This is a comprehensive letter.
So you might decide to summarize the idea
before giving your prisoner the full text.
But then, on the other hand, the prisoner might have lots of time
and be willing and able to read this whole letter.
Here is a synopsis and outline:
If the prisoner on death row
wants his or her death to have some positive value,
he or she could donate his or her usable organs
to save the lives of a few other people
who will otherwise die without those organs.
WHO ARE THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF DEATH-ROW INMATES?
A FEW WORDS
PRISONER HIMSELF OR HERSELF
1. YOU MUST
ADMIT THAT YOU ARE GUILTY OF THE CRIME
FOR WHICH YOU HAVE BEEN PUT ON DEATH ROW.
2. YOUR CHOICE
TO DONATE YOUR ORGANS AFTER EXECUTION
MUST BE COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY AND UNCOERCED.
3. SOME FACTS
ABOUT MYSELF AND MY INTEREST IN ORGAN DONATION
4. HOW MUCH
MEDIA ATTENTION SHOULD WE EXPECT?
FOR YOUR PROPOSED DONATION
6. YOUR DEATH
BY EXECUTION CAN SAVE SEVERAL OTHER LIVES.
CAN YOU PASS
THIS IDEA FORWARD?
WHO ARE THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF DEATH-ROW INMATES?
This open letter might actually first come to the
attention of the lawyers
for some prisoner on death row.
"Family and friends" is meant to include anyone on the outside
who knows any prisoner who is waiting for execution on death row
in any state that has the death penalty.
(This could actually include condemned prisoners anywhere on Earth.)
I considered trying to write to prisoners on death
but that did not seem likely to be productive,
since most condemned prisoners
would have no interest in organ donation after death.
Yet, in another sense, the next of kin of a
might be responsible for the disposition
of the remains after the
So if you are the next of kin of someone on death row,
you might be able to donate
his or her organs after execution.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT MYSELF:
I am an existential philosopher, living and writing
in Minneapolis, Minnesota
—a state that does not have the
I have never seen the inside of a prison.
And I do not know any people who have ever been in jail.
I come to this question of organ donation by people
on death row
because of my continuing interest in helping people who will die
if they do not receive new organs to replace their failing organs.
I do not work for any organization (either
for-profit or non-profit)
that might benefit from any result of this letter.
I am a perpetual volunteer:
Most of the things I have done with my adult life
have no financial rewards.
Much more about me can be discovered on my website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum:
ADDRESSING THE PRISONER HIMSELF OR HERSELF:
We have never met and we will never meet.
Our contact will be purely by means of the written word.
I do not expect to have any reason ever to talk with you even by
Keeping this kind of distance will be good
for the objectivity of the process I am proposing.
I will be your philosophical and ethical helper in
the long process
you will have to undertake if we want to donate your organs
after you are executed for the crime(s) for which you have been
Would it be correct to say that most prisoners
on death row
have never considered donating their organs after execution?
In the Western world, no prisoner has ever become an organ-donor.
Thus you might become
the very first person on death row
to have your usable organs transplanted after your execution.
This open letter has several sections,
each of which you can consider separately and thoughtfully.
1. YOU MUST ADMIT THAT YOU ARE GUILTY OF THE CRIME
FOR WHICH YOU HAVE BEEN PUT ON DEATH ROW.
I have decided not to help anyone donate organs
who maintains that he or she is not guilty of the crime.
I realize that most people on death row claim that they are innocent.
All of these people would not qualify for organ donation
under the plan that I wish to put forward.
So, if you are still claiming to be innocent,
you can pass this letter on to some other person on death row
who has already admitted that he or she did the crime
for which a correct conviction has been declared by a court
and for which he or she will be punished by the death penalty.
My reason for insisting on this admission of guilt
(1) I personally do not want to be involved
in the execution of anyone who might be innocent.
(2) This proposal is going to be controversial enough
without either of us becoming involved
in the complicated debate about the death-penalty itself.
One of the major objections to capital punishment
is that we do sometimes make mistakes:
Sometimes the wrong person has been executed.
This is a terrible miscarriage of 'justice'.
And it should not happen in your case.
I realize that you have probably been thru a trial
your lawyers tried
to the best of their ability to raise a 'reasonable doubt' in the minds
of the jurors.
During your trial, you always maintained that you were innocent.
But now that is all past.
And you will put aside your last right of appeal
if you now publicly acknowledge that you did the crime
for which you were convicted.
You will 'come clean' in whatever detail you please.
It could be as little as one sentence stating that you are guilty.
Or it could be a full confession,
giving details of the crime which were not known
to anyone else except yourself.
(And if you are guilty of other crimes for which you were not caught,
you might decide to 'come clean' about those crimes also.
How much or how little you admit will be entirely up to you.
And even if you do make some statement now,
you will always be permitted to change your statement later.
You might decide that you were deluded when you admitted your guilt.
Sometimes our minds do play funny tricks on us.
This will be a public admission of guilt,
not a renewal of any part of the legal-justice process.
You will not have to appear before any more judges, lawyers, etc.
And, as already indicated, you will tell your lawyers
to give up and discontinue any further legal process
that was intended to get you out of jail
or to reduce your sentence from execution to life-in-prison.
You might give up your appeals
only after you have written agreement from a specific transplant team
to accept your donated organs after you are executed.
In other words, you will try to stay alive
until you have made certain
that your organs will be donated after your execution.
2. YOUR CHOICE TO DONATE YOUR ORGANS AFTER EXECUTION
MUST BE COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY AND UNCOERCED.
People who oppose the death penalty
will rightly raise doubts about the voluntariness of your anatomical
They will say that no person behind bars
can make a truly free choice about such an important matter.
Therefore, we will have to follow some
that will convince at least most of the doubters
that you are really deciding to donate your organs after execution
as a fully-informed free
choice on your part.
Even if most prisoners on death row
could never convince anyone in the outside world
that they are making a completely-free choice to donate organs,
you will, again, be the outstanding
You will be able to prove to all concerned
that you are making your own
free choice about your own body.
Here is a simple safeguard that comes to my mind:
You will write letters in your own hand-writing
and send them to trustworthy persons
completely outside the prison and criminal-justice systems
stating that you are guilty of the crime
and that you have now chosen to donate your organs after execution.
In order to save you from a momentary enthusiasm or
I suggest that you be required to write at least 12 of these letters,
one for each of 12 different months.
This will give you lots of time to re-consider your decision.
And you will be free at any point in this whole long process
to change your mind about your guilt and/or about donating your organs.
If you feel any pressure to donate,
you should communicate this to the outside authority
that is receiving your letters admitting guilt
and requesting organ donation after death.
This question of how free you can be behind bars
is addressed more completely here:
"Can a Prisoner Ever Make a Free Choice?"
More discussion of safeguards for voluntary execution will be found
"Voluntary Execution: Better than Capital Punishment?":
3. SOME FACTS ABOUT MYSELF AND MY INTEREST IN ORGAN DONATION.
I am an existential philosopher.
This means that I spend my time thinking about human existence.
Execution and organ donation are only a tiny part of the range of my
My largest book is Our
And my second largest book is New Ways of Loving
Over a thousand pages of my writings are in print.
I have written only a few pages about organ donation from the executed.
My interest in medical ethics that has led me
to write this letter.
I know that lots of people are dying every day
because there are never enough organs donated to save them.
And I myself am an organ
When I am finished with my body,
I want all the re-usable organs to be removed from my body
and transplanted into the bodies of other people
who would otherwise die without them.
I am now planning to live until about age 95,
so my organs will be quite old when I donate them.
And the doctors who receive my organs will have to decide
just which ones would be worth transplanting into other people.
I am even offering to have my body used as a 'living cadaver'
after I am done with it.
But that is not what I am suggesting for you.
It will be difficult enough to get approval for ordinary organ
I recommend organ donation to everyone.
Each of us will die on some definite day in the future.
And it will be better for others if we donate our re-usable organs
rather than bury or burn them.
I am not seeking publicity for myself
by means of this process of helping you to donate your organs,
altho there will certainly be some media attention
directed toward me as well as you.
But you donating your organs
after execution will be the main story.
I will probably be asked again and again whether I
believe you are guilty.
And I will not express any opinion about that.
I do not wish to know anything about your crime.
Journalists who wish to know more about your case
will have to consult the public record of your trial.
And any additional information will come from you, not from me.
Along this same line, I will not be making any
I will not hold any press conferences.
I will not travel to meet with you or any of the other people involved
in this process.
My role will be limited to what I can do by means of the written word,
mostly produced on the computer on which I now write these words.
You might have other people offering to help,
who will seek more publicity for themselves.
And you will have to decide just how much you want to cooperate with
You might come to appreciate the fact that
The media cannot get to you without your permission
—and the permission of the prison
And I will keep a very low profile in the media as
The focus should be on the question of organ donation from the
not on me as an advocate.
There will, however, be great public interest in you.
And this media attention will have to be managed
so that the fundamental purpose of your donation
is not overshadowed by the media circus that could result.
4. HOW MUCH MEDIA ATTENTION SHOULD WE EXPECT?
If you are the first condemned prisoner to donate
(in the Western world),
you might become well-known all over the world.
Later, if and when such donations become routine,
the media will not pay any more attention
than they now do to routine executions.
You should be prepared to become the most famous person on death row.
This has both positive aspects as well as negative.
It is good to be known for the altruistic gifts
that will allow other people to live as the result of your death.
But the negative publicity will focus on your crime.
How would you like this part of your story to be told?
favor of the death penalty and people
opposed to capital punishment
will very likely use your case as an opportunity to re-state their
The opponents of putting criminals to death
will tell you that you owe it to all others on death row
never to voluntarily cooperate with the evil system
that is giving you the ultimate punishment—death.
Some people who favor the death penalty
might say that a peaceful and painless death is too good for criminals.
Organizations and individuals attempting to get more
to donate their organs after death
will worry that associating organ-donation with execution sends the
Radio and television talk-shows will have lots of
opportunity to discuss you
and your unusual request to donate your organs after you are executed.
I would not be surprised if you become such a
that your picture will appear on the cover of news magazines
and your story will be extensively discussed inside.
You should begin to think now about how you want to handle media
5. TIME-LINE FOR YOUR PROPOSED DONATION
If a date is already set for your execution,
it might already be too late for you to donate your organs.
But even if you have an execution date,
it might still be worth trying to get the rules and regulations changed
so that you can do some good by means of your death.
Because organ donation from prisoners
has never been
done before in the Western world,
it will probably take two years or more to work thru the process.
I have already mentioned the one-year delay
required to make sure that you are making a completely free decision
to donate your organs after you are done with them. (See 2
But while you are proving that your donation is completely voluntary,
during the same months, we can be attempting to overcome
the present barriers to donating your organs.
One major barrier will be the medical people.
Organs have never been donated by executed prisoners before,
at least not in the United States or other Western countries.
Organ transplantation is a highly-specialized skill.
There are only a few doctors who transplant organs from one body to
And all of them are subject to careful review by their peers
and by the medical institutions in which they do their transplant work.
Many committees will have to approve of your anatomical gift
before it will even be considered.
What is the nearest transplant center from where you
are now imprisoned?
Each state has only a few hospitals where organ-transplants are
Several committees at the first institution that accepts organs from
will have to approve of this radical departure from the accepted
pattern of organ-donation.
Normally people donate their organs
after they die from natural causes or as the result of a violent
The transplant team is not supposed to have any role
in the medical care of the donor.
This is to prevent even the appearance of rushing the patient
in order to use the organs for someone else.
Science fiction loves the idea that some people are killed for their
So your chosen process will have to be carefully
separated from all those scenarios.
And even if we do our best,
there will still be some journalists who take this perspective
—that you have
been improperly influenced to give up your life
so that your organs can be used for someone else.
We will do our level best to prevent this kind of account in the media.
But we can be sure that at least some outsiders will raise this doubt.
I am guessing that it will take over a year to get
any transplant center
to accept organs donated by someone who is going to be executed.
They will worry about what public image they will be projecting.
If condemned prisoners are allowed to donate their organs after death,
will this cause other donors to shy away from donating their organs?
Non-criminals do not want to be associated with criminals,
even after they are dead.
One of my roles will be to try to get the transplant
center you choose
to accept your anatomical gift.
And if one transplant center says "no",
we will have to look for another.
We might use the media to find a transplant center
that is open-minded enough to be the first to accept such a gift.
Here is an open letter to the people who will be the first to make
to the rules and regulations now preventing organ donation after
"Making Exceptions to the Rules:
Should Prisoners Be Permitted to Donate their Organs after Execution?
An Open Letter to Wardens, Governors, & Organ-Procurement Doctors":
And we can enlist help from the large pool of people
who are waiting for organs.
They know they they will surely die if they do not get organs soon.
Another part of the delay will come from you
If you do not yet have an execution date,
then you can delay the end of your life and the date of your donation
for as long as you please.
Once you have been approved as an organ donor,
there is no medical reason to
rush your death.
You can decide what would be the best time for you to die
and for your organs to be transplanted into other people.
If the legal process does not require your immediate execution,
the date of your death could even be many years
after you have arranged to donate your organs.
When would be the best day for your execution?
What time-line would you prefer
for this way of bringing your life to a meaningful end?
6. YOUR DEATH BY EXECUTION CAN SAVE SEVERAL OTHER LIVES.
Thousands of people die every year in the United
because there are never enough organs to give to the people who need
These people die anonymously for the most part.
We are not given their stories in the new media.
They are not remembered except by those who knew them in life.
I will come to the end of my life when some part of
my body can no longer function.
But there will probably be other parts that can be salvaged
and transplanted into the bodies of other people
who will otherwise die unless they get my organs.
Because I plan to use my organs as long as possible,
they might be mostly too old and worn out to be of use to anyone else.
But because your life will come to an end as the
result of execution,
you are more likely to die in
the prime of your life.
And your organs can save more lives than mine will.
You will be asked for your reasons for wanting to
donate your organs after execution.
Perhaps you will create a meaningful statement
explaining how you want something good to come from your life and
If you donate your organs while they are still working well,
your death can literally save several lives of men and women you have
And there might even be children who will benefit from our gift of
As the state has the power of life-and-death over you,
you have the power to give
life to others who are now waiting at home
or even waiting in hospitals because their own organs are failing.
If you decide not to
donate your organs,
some additional people will
because there is always a shortage of organs.
But if you do donate, your organs will live in other people after your
If you wish, I can help you to write a statement
explaining your personal reasons
for deciding to donate your organs after your life is over.
The public will be very interested in knowing your thoughts
very unusual gift.
CAN YOU PASS THIS IDEA FORWARD?
Here's hoping this letter will somehow be shared
with family and friends (or lawyers) of prisoners on death row.
If any reader of this letter has any ideas
about how to communicate with the people who must decide
about organ donation from prisoners who will be executed,
please communicate with me.
I have created an open letter to the professionals
who will be involved:
Journalists who will ultimately cover this story
are also welcome to become involved
in the long process of locating the first donor on death row.
That could be the title or the lead: "Donor on Death Row".
James Park, existential philosopher
Any interested person is welcome to write to me
at the following e-mail address:
James Park, e-mail: PARKx032@TC.UMN.EDU.
first created 2001; revised August
2008; 1-22-2010; 3-6-2010; 8-7-2010; 12-26-2010; 4-8-2011
See three related essays on-line:
Better than the Death Penalty?
Execution Followed by Organ Donation
How Dead Do You Have to Be?