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November 10, 2019

Iowa court rejects LWOP inmate's claim that his brief "death" before medical resuscitation completed his "life" sentence

A number of readers kindly made sure I did not miss an amusing sentencing story out of Iowa effectively summarized by the headline of this local press report, "Court: Life sentence not finished until death is permanent." Here are the basics via the press account:

The Iowa Court of Appeals has rejected the claims of a Wapello County man convicted of murder in 1997 who said a medical emergency fulfilled his life sentence.

Benjamin Schreiber was convicted in the 1996 beating death of John Terry. Court documents show in March 2015 large kidney stones “caused him to urinate internally, which in turn led him to developing septic poisoning.” Schreiber collapsed in his prison cell and was taken to the hospital, where “he was resuscitated five times.” He underwent surgery and antibiotic treatment and eventually recovered.

According to the court’s ruling, “Schreiber filed this [post-conviction relief] application in April 2018. In it he claims he momentarily died at the hospital, thereby fulfilling his ‘life’ sentence … . Because his sentence has been fulfilled, he argues, he is imprisoned illegally and should be immediately released.”

The court ruling is available in full at this link, and here is the heart of its legal analysis and rejection of the inmate's claim:

In essence, Schreiber claims that he “died” and was resuscitated by medical staff in 2015 against his wishes, thereby completing his sentence.  He asserts he was sentenced to life without parole, “but not to Life plus one day.”  Therefore, he is being held in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  We do not find his argument persuasive.  He cites no case law that supports his position, and Iowa Code section 902.1 directs the district court to commit defendants guilty of class “A” felonies — like Schreiber — “into the custody of the director of the Iowa department of corrections for the rest of the defendant’s life.” Iowa Code § 902.1(1) (emphasis added).  Because chapter 902 does not define “life,” we give that term its plain meaning.  State v. Hearn, 797 N.W.2d 577, 583 (Iowa 2011). “[O]ur primary goal is to give effect to the intent of the legislature.” State v. Anderson, 782 N.W.2d 155, 158 (Iowa 2010).

The plain reading of the statute is that a defendant convicted of a class “A” felony must spend the rest of their natural life in prison, regardless of how long that period of time ends up being or any events occurring before the defendant’s life ends.  We do not believe the legislature intended this provision, which defines the sentences for the most serious class of felonies under Iowa law and imposes its “harshest penalty,” State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 645 (Iowa 2012), to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration lead to their resuscitation by medical professionals.  See State v. Louisell, 865 N.W.2d 590, 598 & n.6 (Iowa 2015) (noting “life in prison is the intended punishment for” class “A” felonies and “[l]esser offenses are notably punished less severely”).  We conclude the correct reading of section 902.1(1) requires Schreiber to stay in prison for the rest of his natural life, regardless of whether he was resuscitated against his wishes in 2015.

November 10, 2019 at 05:40 PM | Permalink


I have previously seen a case similar to this one. Inmate/defendant serving a life sentence had a heart attack and died on the prison softball field. He had a "DO NOT RESUSCITATE" Order in his prison medical file too. Prison medical officials rolled a crash cart out to the softball field and brought him back to life using paddles and electrical shock. Because it was an emergency situation on the softball field, no one asked what his name was or checked his medical file to find the DNR Order. Inmate/defendant sought habeas corpus, seeking release from prison, on the ground that he had completed his life sentence (by dying of a heart attack on the softball field), but had been brought back to life, in violation of his DNR Order. Unfortunately, I can't recall a citation for that case or the ultimate outcome, but I suspect that the Courts would agree with the Iowa Court of Appeals. Death isn't really death until it is permanent!

Posted by: James Gormley | Nov 11, 2019 4:56:53 PM

@ James

Death is a process, not an event. From a scientific point of view, he did not die and then was resurrected; his death process was interrupted before completion.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 12, 2019 4:10:24 PM

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