Give Liver Transplant To Man Set For Possible Execution?

LAS VEGAS (AP) Federal prosecutors in Nevada and Washington are weighing whether to seek the death penalty for the reputed leader of a violent white supremacy prison gang who is awaiting trial on murder and racketeering charges.

That could make Ronald L. "Joey" Sellers the first person in decades in Nevada to die at the hands of the United States government.

But his death could be swifter. Sellers has been indicted on federal charges for allegedly helping run the Aryan Warriors gang in state prisons. But officials say he is ill with liver failure and could die within three years without a transplant.

Indeed, he is so desperate for a transplant that his lawyers are making it a central part of their argument to spare his life when the Justice Department's special Capital Case Review committee determines whether he should be tried for capital murder.

Hanging over that decision in Washington is a dilemma.

Prosecutors don't object to a transplant. But they say Sellers has not yet been deemed a transplant candidate. They want his criminal case to proceed, noting in court papers that in the meantime his "medical treatment is being monitored at the highest levels."

Defense lawyers argue that health issues should take priority over the criminal case.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Why spend untold taxpayer dollars and government manpower to convict, imprison and execute a man who will die a lot faster and a lot cheaper if his liver simply shuts down?

"Irony and tragedy is often lost on bureaucrats," his lawyer, Richard Kammen, said in an interview.

It is the sort of predicament that has confronted other death row cases, and other prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and prison wardens.

Time was ticking down for Jerry Joe Bird when he suffered a stroke in his Texas death row cell. His lawyers argued he was left partially paralyzed, confused and unable to speak. He was hospitalized, released from a hospital and put to death in June 1991 for killing an antique-gun collector in the Rio Grande Valley.

In December 1999, David Martin Long tried to commit suicide two days before his execution by overdosing on prescription medications he hoarded. He was hospitalized, returned to Huntsville, Texas, and executed by lethal injection.

On Sept. 15, the execution of Romell Broom in Ohio was called off after prison attendants spent two hours trying to find a suitable vein for injection. Broom was set to die for raping and killing a 14-year-old Cleveland girl. Officials say years of heroin use left his veins weakened and unpliable.

Gov. Ted Strickland issued a one-week reprieve, and a U.S. District Court judge scheduled a hearing Nov. 30 about how to proceed.

Therein lies the quandary.

"You can't punish people twice," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. His nonprofit group monitors capital punishment and seeks to ensure that condemned inmates are treated fairly, both legally and humanely.

"You can't give them the death penalty and then shortchange them on proper medical treatment. Constitutionally, you can't do that," Dieter said.

Traci Billingsley, a U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman in Washington, said all federal inmates, including the 55 with death sentences, are given lifesaving operations when appropriate.

"All of our inmates are eligible to be considered for a transplant," Billingsley said when asked about the Sellers case. She said several inmates have been given kidney and bone marrow transplants, but only one received a new liver.

"We do whatever is medically necessary," she said.

Nevada has 82 state prisoners on death row, and has executed 12 people in the past 20 years. The last was Daryl Mack, put to death in April 2006 for strangling a woman in Reno.

(AP/J. Kiely Jr., BWH-Lightchaser)
On the federal level, officials said they couldn't name any executions in Nevada in at least 50 years, and couldn't remember any federal death penalty trials in Nevada since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That makes the Sellers case unusual.

His attorney, Kammen, said there's no question Sellers needs a transplant.

Sellers alleges his liver was damaged after contracting hepatitis C from unsanitary conditions at the state prison in Ely, where he was imprisoned for life for a string of offenses in Reno, including first-degree murder.

His medical records warn that he has "end-stage liver disease due to chronic hepatitis C."

Sellers has lost more than 40 pounds this year and yet is severely bloated. A hernia the size of an adult fist protrudes from his intestines and groin. Doctors told him last year he might not last three to five years, Kammen said.

Sellers' brother and son have offered to donate half their livers to save him. But his future remains unsettled. Prosecutors maintain his condition is not critical. Sellers is now at the Federal Correctional Institute at Terminal Island, Calif.

As Billingsley said, if a transplant is deemed medically necessary, he likely would be taken to a hospital in the community where he is housed. If he is on death row, that would be in Terre Haute, Ind.