A Condemned Man Wants to Give an Eye
The question now before the California Supreme Court is an eerie one, with no easy answer.
How much control — it asks — does the state have over a condemned man's body, mind and soul?
The written appeal on which the court must act is a stilted, dull, highly technical legal document.
But, with the conscience of a condemned killer and the sight of a young missionary at stake, the story behind it can hardly be discarded as uninteresting.
Yesterday, the Rev. Floyd K. Gressett — the man to whom Luis Moya confessed his part in the slaying of Olga Duncan — told me the beginning of that story.
After Moya's conviction in Ventura, Rev. Gressett requested and was granted permission to accompany the 21-year-old killer on the trip to San Quentin.
| "We were winding through the green, hilly country around Santa Maria," the reverend recalled. "There were cows grazing on the hillsides and Moya seemed intensely preoccupied with the view.
"Then," Gressett continued, "Moya turned to me. He said, 'I've been over this road a hundred times. I've looked at those hills for years. But I never really saw them before.'
"Moya was silent for a minute or two. Just looking at me. Then he said, 'You know, Reverend, I'd like to give my eyes to somebody who doesn't have any.'"
It was shortly after that, that another minister, 32-year-old David Hansen, was traveling through Ventura. He heard about Moya's offer and for him it held special interest.
The minister was blind. For eight years he had been suffering from a disease known as kertacomus, a deterioration of the cornea. He contacted Rev. Gressett and Burt Henson, Moya's attorney.
Both assured him that the condemned killer's offer was a sincere one, dictated by conscience, not by motives of sympathetic publicity.
But this, Rev. Hansen wanted to establish for himself. A visit with Moya on Death Row was arranged.
"I was apprehensive before I talked to Moya," the Rev. Hansen explained to me this week. "I didn't want to be part of any publicity scheme. But I walked out of San Quentin assured that Moya's motives were sincere."
I pointed out the irony of a missionary viewing the world through a murderer's eyes.
"I don't consider it that way," Hansen replied. "Remember, Moya was converted."
"If he hadn't been converted, would you have accepted his eyes?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered honestly.
But the plans of Moya and Hansen met a snag in the office of San Quentin Warden Fred Dickson. It was against policy, he said.
Atty. Henson appealed the issue, at Dickson's suggestion, to Richard A. McGee, state director of corrections.
McGee backed up Dickson.
He pointed out that 25% of the men who go to Death Row are never executed. Henson assured him that Moya's wish — whether he lived or died — was to give one of his eyes to the Rev. Hansen.
Policy Has Its Points
McGee added that in case anything happened to Moya's other eye, the state could them become a party to his total blindness. The attorney assured him that both Moya and his kin were willing to sign waivers relieving the state of any responsibility.
McGee further explained the state's policy on condemned men: They may, he said, will their remains, or their eyes, to medical schools or eye banks. But they can't specify individual schools or persons.
The policy, obviously, has merit.
But if you're Luis Moya, anxious to atone in part, during your life time, for your sins, or if you're Rev. David Hansen, blind and eager to accept an assignment as part of a missionary team soon to depart for the Philippines, its merit becomes diluted.
The moral question before the State Supreme Court is one I wouldn't enjoy having the responsibility of answering.