Two Mississippi sisters who had been imprisoned for 16 years were released Friday on the condition that the younger sibling donate a kidney to her sister, whose organs are failing.
The sisters, Jamie and Gladys Scott, walked out of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl just after 8 a.m. Friday and were greeted by their mother, their children and throngs of reporters. The case of the Scott sisters attracted widespread attention after Gov. Haley Barbour suspended their life sentences last month with the stipulation that Gladys, 36, give one of her kidneys to Jamie, 38.
At a news conference Friday afternoon in Jackson, Miss., the sisters wore new clothes — Jamie had on pink, Gladys wore purple — and spoke about how surprised and gratified they were to go suddenly from the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison to being released into a world that had changed radically since 1994, when they were sentenced for their roles in a robbery.
“I never thought this day would ever come, when I’d be on the outside of the walls,” said Jamie Scott, who wiped away tears with a handkerchief. “Now I’m on the outside, and I can get some decent medical treatment. I am so very grateful for this day. ”
The kidney donation was the sisters’ idea, and was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations. But the unusual nature of the arrangement has been criticized by some medical ethicists.
Legal experts said suspending a prison sentence contingent on an organ donation was highly unusual and might be unprecedented.
Jamie Scott requires dialysis treatment at least three times a week, and her health has been failing for the last few months.
The women plan to live in Pensacola, Fla., with their mother and their children. Jamie Scott has three children; Gladys Scott has two.
The Scotts were arrested on Christmas Eve 1993, when Jamie was 21 and Gladys 19, and they were convicted the following year on charges that they led two men into an ambush, during which the men were robbed of about $11 at gunpoint, according to the trial transcript. The precise amount of money involved in the holdup was never established. No one was injured during the crime.
Three boys and a young man, ages 14 to 18 at the time, were also convicted; they served their sentences and were released from custody years ago, Mississippi officials said. The sisters denied playing any role in the crime but were given such heavy sentences because the judge believed they had organized the robbery.
After years of unsuccessful efforts by their family and friends to get the sisters released because of inconsistencies in testimony during the trial, Jamie Scott’s kidney failure in January 2010 led to a renewed grass-roots campaign to free them. The effort on behalf of the sisters, who are black, was first taken up by African-American-themed Internet sites, and more recently by the N.A.A.C.P. and by black politicians in Mississippi.
After considering the matter for several months, Governor Barbour announced in late December that he would not pardon the sisters, but would indefinitely suspend their sentences.
He said he had acted in part out of concern over Jamie Scott’s health, but also to relieve the state of the cost of her dialysis treatment, which is approximately $200,000 a year.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society,” Mr. Barbour said in a Dec. 29 statement. “Their 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.”
Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Barbour’s decision to free the women on the basis of the kidney donation had crossed a moral line.
“Either out of ignorance or out of indifference, he shifted what had been a gift into compensation,” Dr. Caplan said. “He turned it into a business contract.”
The sisters will be on parole for the rest of their lives, their lawyers said.
Many questions remain unanswered, including who will pay for the kidney transplant. The sisters’ supporters say that the family cannot afford the procedure and that it is unclear whether they will qualify for Medicaid.
Further, the sisters have not been tested to see if their blood type and immune systems are sufficiently close for a transplant operation. There are also concerns that after having spent so many years in prison that neither sister is healthy enough to undergo the procedure.