A jury convicted three Brazilian doctors of killing four patients by removing their organs, which prosecutors said were used for transplants at an expensive private clinic.
Sao Paulo state Judge Marco Montemor sentenced doctors Rui Sacramento, Pedro Torrecillas and Mariano Fiore Junior to 17 years and six months each in prison.
Sacramento and Torrecillas were charged with murder after removing both kidneys from the patients and preparing the organs for transport. Fiore, a neurosurgeon, was charged as an accomplice for incorrectly declaring the patients brain dead and authorizing the harvest of their organs.
Another neurosurgeon who had been accused in the case, Antonio de Carvalho Monteiro, died last year.
Sacramento fainted when the sentence was read late Thursday, and family members of the victims who packed the court cried and hugged each other.
The case described by authorities as extremely complex took 25 years for a verdict to be handed down. Brazil's criminal justice system is notoriously slow and it isn't unusual for complicated cases to take years or even decades to work their way through the courts.
The case first emerged on Dec. 16, 1986, when the head of the University of Taubate's medical school realized an affiliated hospital had conducted a kidney transplant that he hadn't expected, said Sao Paulo state prosecutor Marcio Friggi de Carvalho.
Kalume looked up the records and exams connected to the transplant and found irregularities. He then investigated the team of doctors, and turned over the evidence he found to the Federal Counsel of Medicine, the agency that regulates and licenses medical doctors, Carvalho said.
Police took up the matter after the agency's investigation as the case made its way through Brazil's court system.
"They simply did not have the diagnosis of brain death," said Carvalho. "They opened people up, took out their kidneys, and sent them on."
Sergio Salgado Badaro, the defense attorney representing the doctors, had told the jury that convicting them would be a serious mistake and an injustice.
"If you convict them, you will be the first jury in the country to convict doctors for killing people who were already dead," he said in court.
Badaro also told reporters gathered outside the courtroom that his clients were not giving up: "I respect the jury's decision, but that doesn't mean I agree or that I'm not going to appeal."
Two organ recipients testified they paid up to $41,000 for the transplants with private doctors at a private clinic, and hadn't known the origin of their kidneys, Carvalho said.
The case didn't have a clear-cut connection to organ trafficking, since there was little documentation of the transactions, the prosecutor said. That's why the doctors were charged only in connection to the death of the patients, Carvalho said.
What is known is that the organs went from a public hospital, where transplants are free and waiting lists can be long, to an expensive private clinic serving patients who can pay out of their own pockets, court records show.
"You can't say there was the buying and selling of organs; there are no receipts," Carvalho said. "What we have is an informal, obscure context that is very problematic."