A Crime Writer Looks at the Terri Schiavo Case

A young woman collapses on the floor in the middle of the night. Once her husband finally realizes what’s going on, she has been face down and not breathing for some time. Using everything they’ve got, the EMTs get her breathing again, but the long period without oxygen caused extensive brain damage.

At first, the husband and the wife’s parents unite to help her. They hire the best therapists and the best doctors. They hire lawyers and sue a doctor, winning $1 million toward her care.

Three months after the lawsuit money finally arrives, husband changes his attitude. He does not want wife treated for a routine infection. He finds a doctor who concludes that wife will never recover from a vegetative state. He and her parents begin to fight – her parents want custody of both the woman and the lawsuit money. A year passes. Husband begins a new life with a live-in girlfriend.

If the woman in the vegetative state dies, he and his girlfriend are free to marry and will receive the lawsuit money.

He tells the courts that his wife would not have wanted to be in a vegetative state. He asks the court to remove her feeding tubes. The court agrees to.

The problem in the Terri Schiavo case was that Terri Schiavo left no written directions for what to do in case she ended up such a medical condition. She had no Living Will. Removing a feeding tube is not the same as removing an artificial means of medical life support. Food and water are basic necessities of life, not medications or interventions, so courts require a higher standard to remove them.

Bad cases make bad law.

Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo’s husband, had the legal right to convince the courts that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to live in a vegetative state. However, if Terri Shiavo died, he would inherit $700,000 from the proceeds of his wife’s malpractice case against her doctor, and he would be free to marry his live-in girlfriend. He had already received $300,000 from the lawsuit. As his attitude changed, her parents tried to gain custody of their daughter and the lawsuit money.

The case dragged on in the courts for eight years, and Michael Schiavo allegedly spent all of the settlement money on lawyers. During that time, he and his girlfriend had two children. He could have simply walked away from it all and left Terri Schiavo’s care to her parents, who loved her and visited her every day.

Some crime writers and police speculated that Michael wanted Terri dead because he had actually beaten her and caused her injuries and then waited too long to call EMTs. If this were true, he had still another motive to keep her silent forever.

The main thought in the American public’s minds as the Schiavo case dragged on was that they did not want to end up like Terri Schiavo. Hundreds of thousands of people rushed to their lawyers to make living wills. Public pressure, polls, and the show of hands that no one wants to live in the shape that Terri Schiavo was in, influenced the courts in Michael Schiavo’s favor. It became all about us, and not about Terri Schiavo.

This emotional controversy, this turning into ourselves and our own lives, took away from what was happening in Florida. After the court ordered that she could no longer have food or water, Terri Schiavo lasted almost two weeks, dying slowly and painfully of dehydration and starvation. It was anything but humane or compassionate.

There is a saying in law that bad cases make bad law. Who decides when no one leaves written directions? In the Schiavo case, a person who originally had a motive to end her life.

This is why we cannot create laws based on complicated cases like the Terri Schiavo case. Most of the time the issues are more cut and dried. The person left a Living Will. The person is on life supports. The person has not been alive for eight years.

By the way, cases in which the person deciding the other person’s fate has a motive to want him or her dead are by no means unique. That’s what fascinates us crime writers because it’s the perfect crime.

On May 30, 2007, here in Arizona, a husband and wife got into an automobile accident. Rebecca and Jesse Ramirez, ages 33 and 36, had been fighting over whether she had been unfaithful to him. Jesse got so angry he pounded on the windshield of their SUV. Rebecca got so scared that she opened the car door to escape. The car veered and rolled over. Rebecca was all right, but Jesse had severe head trauma and ended up in a coma.

Rebecca Ramirez ordered Jesse’s life support removed. Crime writing types immediately suspected that (1) she caused the accident and would be criminally liable if he told a court that she had grabbed the wheel and (2) she wanted him dead because their marriage had soured.

Jesse’s family fought Rebecca in court, and the legal battle began. In the middle of all that, on June 26, Jesse awoke from his coma and communicated with family members.

Bad cases make bad laws.

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