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Murderer 'Dies,' Is Resuscitated, Then Says He Completed His Life Sentence

If you're serving a life sentence but momentarily "die" and are then resuscitated, does that mean you can walk free?

That's what a convicted murderer is claiming in Iowa. He says he has been in prison for four years too long. But on Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Iowa gave that idea a firm no.

The judges' opinion states that the prisoner is "either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot."

They also note that the inmate managed to sign his name on his motion for post-conviction relief. Therefore, they find the possibility that he is dead "unlikely."

Benjamin Schreiber, 66, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997 and was sentenced to life in prison. In March 2015, he developed large kidney stones, which caused him to develop septic poisoning.

The judges' opinion states that Schreiber was rushed to a hospital after he fell unconscious in his cell. Even though he had a do-not-resuscitate order on file at the hospital, medical staff resuscitated him five times and then operated to repair his organs damaged by the kidney stones.

Schreiber's brother told the hospital staff that "if he is in pain, you may give him something to ease the pain, but otherwise you are to let him pass," according to court records obtained by The Des Moines Register.

Last year, Schreiber filed for post-conviction relief. He said he had "momentarily died," according to the judges' opinion, and therefore should be immediately released. The opinion does not make clear whether Schreiber had actually been declared dead by medical staff.

However, a lower court didn't buy it. "The court finds this assertion unpersuasive and without merit," it stated.

Schreiber appealed, sending the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals. He said the lower court made procedural mistakes and had dismissed the case without an evidentiary hearing to develop his claims. As Wednesday's opinion states, "he asserts that he was sentenced to life without parole, 'but not to Life plus one day.' "

"We do not find his argument persuasive," Judge Amanda Potterfield writes in the panel's opinion. It notes that Schreiber cited no case law to bolster his arguments. And Potterfield doubts that Schreiber's interpretation of the law could possibly be what lawmakers meant when they defined a life sentence.

"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,' ... to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration lead to their resuscitation by medical professionals," the opinion states.

Schreiber's lawyer didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling, and it's not clear whether the inmate plans to file another appeal.

Schreiber also had said in his post-conviction relief application that his due process rights were violated because the hospital didn't abide by his do-not-resuscitate order. But the lower court didn't address that aspect of the case, and the appellate panel said it wouldn't either.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.