Attorney in Schiavo case authors account of family’s struggle, faulty legal system
SEMINOLE, Fla. (BP)--“Life itself was on trial,” the attorney who worked to save Terri Schiavo from starvation writes in a new book about the landmark Florida case and the shame it brought upon a nation.
In “Fighting for Dear Life: The Untold Story of Terri Schiavo and What It Means for All of Us,” David Gibbs, who took the case at the request of Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, offers a firsthand account of the family’s emotional struggle to keep their daughter alive, the legal appeals that moved through the Florida courts and the effort to protect Schiavo with state and federal legislation.
All of his efforts and the efforts of those who rallied to the cause failed. Terri Schiavo, who had not been out of her hospice room in five years, had her feeding tube disconnected by court order. She died on March 31, 2005.
The American media treated the events surrounding Schiavo’s last few days like a tragic “death watch,” Gibbs writes in the book. But only the foreign media was quick to pick up on the conflict of values in the case, he notes. They could not understand how a nation that was sacrificing American young lives to liberate the people of Iraq could allow one of its own citizens to suffer a death often handed down by tyrants.
“Most of these foreign journalists admitted that they didn’t understand our court system or the laws regarding the matter. Nor did they really want all of the details,” Gibbs writes. “About all they knew was that an otherwise healthy disabled girl was being intentionally dehydrated and starved to death by order of one of the lowest courts in America. And when the president and the Congress tried to stop this miscarriage of justice, they couldn’t do it. That was the essence of what they understood.”
Tragically, many Americans may not have understood the case because Schiavo’s condition was never accurately reported by the media. Gibbs writes that he does not blame the media for the reporting. Instead, he blames Michael Schiavo and his pro-euthanasia attorney, George Felos, who waged a fierce public relations campaign to salvage Michael Schiavo’s reputation and personal fortune –- a fortune obtained through malpractice claims surrounding Terri’s medical care prior to her collapse and subsequent brain damage.
Gibbs argues in the book that rather than being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as claimed by Felos and Michael Schiavo, he and Terri’s parents and relatives believed she was minimally conscious. According to his eyewitness accounts in the book, Terri was able to recognize visitors, laugh and even respond to commands. She also was able to track objects visually, make a “lemon face” when kissed by her mother and able to utter words like “no” and “stop” immediately after her brain injury in 1990. Had she received therapy then, Gibbs writes, the case might have been altogether different, one centered around who would care for Terri rather than how she would die.
A PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE
On Feb. 25, 1990, Bob and Mary Schindler received a call that no parent wants to receive: Their daughter Terri, then 26, had collapsed at home while with her husband Michael. When she was rushed to the hospital, doctors surmised that she would be severely brain damaged, if she recovered at all.
When she improved, prompting doctors to revise her acute coma status, she began receiving therapy at a rehabilitation center and began to improve with husband Michael at her side, Gibbs writes in his book.
Less than two years later, however, after Michael Schiavo won a $1.2 million verdict against Terri’s gynecologist for failing to recognize signs of bulimia, the Schindlers had a falling out with their son-in-law. Michael had begun to move on in his personal life, Gibbs writes, and had placed Terri in a nursing home, rather than a rehabilitation facility.
“The Schindlers were stunned beyond belief,” Gibbs writes. “But things would only get worse. Michael would later claim that a memory had suddenly surfaced: Terri would not want to live in a disabled condition. In fact, although the money they needed was now there, Terri received absolutely no rehabilitative services, swallowing tests, or therapy of any kind between 1992 and her death in 2005.”
The events set in motion a 12-year legal battle, leaving the family disheartened at the lack of care for their daughter and anger toward the man who promised, at his wedding and even at the malpractice trial, to care for their daughter for the rest of his life.
“The timing of Michael’s change of heart is deeply troubling,” Gibbs writes. “While you and I might question the way the mind works when remembering past details, the Schindlers could only wonder why Michael very much wanted Terri to live when he anticipated a jury awarding him more money than many people will see in their entire lifetime. Then, after the check arrived, Michael’s story changed: Terry really didn’t want to live anymore.”
In 1993, Michael Schiavo began a long-term relationship with Jodi Centonze, with whom he would have two children. They married in January 2006, a few months after Terri’s death.
AMERICA ON TRIAL
Gibbs writes in his book that if the case of Terri Schiavo proves anything, it is that America has lost its moral compass. Justice, he writes, has been turned on its head. The nation seems to care more for the rights of animals, prisoners of war and convicted criminals than the innocent.
Gibbs cites the case of the convicted Washington, D.C.-area sniper, John Allen Muhammad, and his subsequent hunger strike in prison. Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Malvo, terrorized parts of Virginia and Maryland in 2002, killing 10 and severely wounding three. In 2003, Muhammad was sentenced to die for one of the killings. When he was later transferred to a Maryland jail, he refused to eat.
“Corrections officials warned that their prisoner was ‘in imminent danger of very serious bodily harm, including death, if he does not begin to receive nourishment within the next several days,’” Gibbs writes.
“Let’s not miss the irony. In Florida, a judge ordered the starvation of Terri Schiavo, an innocent woman, who left no written instructions that she wanted to die that way. Meanwhile, a Maryland judge ordered the forced feeding of John Muhammad, a convicted murderer who had been sentenced to die, even though he was in full control of his faculties and had made it perfectly clear that he wanted to starve. Why didn’t the legal system protect his ‘right to die’ in the same way that judges imposed this ‘right’ on Terri?”
Gibbs also writes that Terri would have been protected by the legal system if she had been a prisoner of war because the Geneva Convention prohibits starvation. And she also would have been protected under Florida law if she was merely an animal.
“It’s a crime to starve or mistreat pets or other animals in Florida; that is a crime punishable by a fine and up to a year in jail,” Gibbs writes. “You see, the Florida Department of Agriculture takes the well-being and treatment of animals very seriously; their protection has generated a complicated set of rules and regulations governing animal welfare that is more than four hundred pages in length –- that’s roughly the size of a Tom Clancy novel,” Gibbs writes.
Such circumstances led Gibbs, an experienced attorney and a Christian, to agree to work for Bob and Mary Schindler to save the life of their daughter on a pro bono basis. He would receive no compensation; the family’s financial resources were long-ago spent on unsuccessful legal battles to obtain the right to care for Terri. He writes in the book that he felt compelled to tell the story for several reasons.
“The first is quite simple,” Gibbs writes. “I was there. I witnessed firsthand what transpired both in the courtroom and behind the scenes. I visited with Terri on numerous occasions. I looked into her eyes. I spoke and laughed with her. I watched Terri’s family interact with her in ways nobody in the media ever saw. And I was in her room the day her feeding tube was removed ... as well as shortly before Terri took her final breath.”
Gibbs also writes that he felt compelled to tell the story of Terri Schiavo because of his love and respect for American law, which he claims the case turned on its head.
“For decades we have had a rich history of opposing brutal dictators -– Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Adolf Hitler among others –- for torturing and gassing to death their own people. Yet here on our own soil, with the full blessing of our courts and under the alleged authority of American law, we were engaged in an equally barbaric act,” he writes.
Finally, Gibbs writes that he agreed to give his account of the events surrounding Terri’s death after the Schindlers encouraged him to tell the story. “After Terri died, Bob and Mary asked me to tell what really happened –- specifically the trial and error of this landmark case -– so that many others would be spared from a similar fate.”
A ‘PAINLESS DEATH’
Terri Schiavo might be alive “if she had a different husband or a different judge,” Gibbs writes in his book. He calls into question the procedure surrounding the 2000 trial where Pinellas County Probate Court Judge George Greer ordered the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube for the first time. Greer had never seen Schiavo in person. But the book also focuses on the significant role played in the events by mystic and pro-euthanasia attorney George Felos.
Felos, who once served on the board of directors at the hospice where Schiavo spent her last years, claimed to have had a previous soul-to-soul conversation with a woman who was comatose following a stroke. The woman reportedly asked Felos to help her die, a pledge he legally honored in the courts. That experience, Felos said, helped him to see that terminally ill patients want their souls released.
But Schiavo, Gibbs writes, was never terminally ill. She was in a minimally conscious state, according to 40 doctors who watched hours of videotape of Terri. The only doctor’s ruling that mattered in the case, however, was the one made by the doctor hired by Felos and Michael Schiavo -– a doctor who deemed her condition irreversible.
Felos argued that death would be the best thing for Terri Schiavo. Before television cameras and in newspapers, he argued that death by removal of nutritional support -– starvation in laymen’s terms -– was virtually “painless.” When Schiavo succumbed to dehydration following the removal of her feeding tube, Felos said he was proud of the role he had played in helping her die a “dignified and peaceful death.”
Schiavo received numerous doses of morphine while she wasted away. Gibbs writes that he did not understand why the hospital would give pain killers to a “vegetable” for a “painless” death process. He also assumed Schiavo would lie still on the bed until death came.
“I was in for a bittersweet surprise,” Gibbs writes. “Now, as you will recall, Terri’s favorite person in the world was her mother. She was always excited to see her mom. In a slow, deliberate motion, I watched as Terri rolled her head toward her mother, who was standing by her side. Terri’s eyes got real big and -– I’m not sure how she could have summoned it, but I saw a tear roll down Terri’s pitted face. She started to sob and kiss her mom with her open, parched mouth. For several long minutes I watched this mother and her disabled daughter sob cheek to cheek as they said their final goodbyes.”
Hours before Terri Schiavo died, Michael Schiavo had the Schindlers removed from their daughter’s room. He wanted to be alone at her side when she died, an act Gibbs refers to as an effort to win a “positive press release.”
WORDS TO THE CHURCH
Gibbs concludes his book on the life and death of Terri Schiavo with words for the church, noting that “sloppy Christian living” is killing the testimony of individual Christians and the church and leading toward a culture of death. He calls on Christians to assist the nation in returning to the truth of God’s Word, in repenting of where the nation has been and leading forward toward a culture of life.
“America is at a crossroads,” Gibbs writes. “There are forces working from within, pushing a culture without God, a culture of death over life, folly over wisdom, and secularism over faith. In the history of our nation, it was the church that was in the forefront of defending the helpless and the poor, tending the sick and feeding the hungry. Churches established the first schools, both in America and in many other lands. When the church again defends the disabled, the struggling, the weak, the poor, the hopeless, and the orphan, America will experience a blessing and continued freedom from the hand of God.”
David Gibbs defends the rights of churches and Christians nationwide as a “legal missionary” through the Gibbs Law Firm and the Christian Law Association. “Fighting for Dear Life: The Untold Story of Terri Schiavo and What It Means for All of Us” is available at bookstores and from Bethany House Publishers at www.bethanyhouse.com.