Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Meaning of Life

Not long ago my spouse shared with me this New York Times article. The article recounts an appeal by a prisoner, Benjamin Schreiberwho was serving a life sentence for murder.  In his appeal, he argued that because he briefly died in 2015, he has served his life sentence. 

Mr. Schreiber, who apparently had a do not resuscitate order, was taken to an Iowa hospital for a high fever and seizures in March 2015.  The symptoms were caused by kidney stones, and Mr. Schreiber ended up with septic poisoning.  Despite orders from his brother and his own orders, he was resuscitated five times, according to the Iowa Court of Appeals opinion.

It seems that Mr. Schreiber's argument centers around the fact that he was sentenced to "life without parole, 'but not to Life plus one day.'" Thus, because he died and was resuscitated against his wishes, he served his sentence.

Unfortunately for him, the appellate court did not buy his argument.  Because the Iowa code did not define "life," the court opted to "give that term its plain meaning" and "'give effect to the intent of the legislature.'"  Here is what the court reasoned:

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.

The court concluded that "Schreiber is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot."  A footnote in this sentence mentioned that Mr. Schreiber had signed filings in the case, making it "unlikely" that he was actually dead. 

Although I am all for creative appellate arguments, this is perhaps a bit too creative.  The Iowa Court of Appeals certainly thought so.  As medical technology advances, perhaps states need to consider better defining seemingly obvious terms, like "life."

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