Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose condition ignited a protracted legal struggle, died today at a Florida hospice, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed under a court order.
Read the story:Terri Schiavo, 41, Dies in Fla. Hospice (Post, March 31)
Washington Post staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia was online from Florida on Thursday, March 31, at Noon ET to discuss the case and the situation from Pinnelas Park.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hello. It is an emotional scene here in Pinellas Park, Fla., where demonstrators are holding religious services on a strip of grass in front of Woodside Hospice after this morning's announcement that Terri Schiavo has died.
Falls Church, Va.:
Over the past several weeks and months, some horrendous things have been said about Michael Schiavo by congressmen, right-to-life activists, and TV talking heads. Now that Terri Schiavo has passed away, and likely soon to be armed with the autopsy evidence proving her persistent vegetative condition, what's the chance of Schiavo filing suits for libel and slander over what was written and said about him?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: You're right, Michael Schiavo has been disparaged for months, most recently when Randall Terry, spokesman for Terri Schiavo's parents, resurrected accusations that he attacked her and was responsible for her brain injury. Michael Schiavo has denied this accusation.
Whether he has a slander case is a matter for lawyers to decide. But given the intense history of litigation in this case, one would have to surmise that more lawsuits are not outside the realm of possibility.
Do you think this "end of life" issue will continue on though the legislatures, or will this story die along with Terri Schiavo and be long forgotten?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Very little chance of this fading away. Already today influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill are discussing possible laws to address these tragic situations when families disagree about life-sustaining treatment. And the state legislatures in many parts of the country are talking too. Rest assured, you'll be hearing the name Terri Schiavo for a long time to come.
There were some new legal precedents set with this case -- specifically Congress jumping in and passing the emergency legislation. Does this change anything with respect to how right to die/living will issues will be handled in future?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Many lawyers would argue with you about new legal precedents. Some of the top legal minds in the country are on the record saying that most of the right-to-die, or depending on who is speaking, the right-to-life, legal issues were settled during the intensely litigated cases of Nancy Cruzan and Karen Ann Quinlan. That said, Congress's intervention in the case has spurred questions about the separation of powers doctrine.
Sad story no matter how you look at it. What's the mood like there among the protestors, is it mainly mourning or is there some anger as well?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Some of the protestors are so shaken that they can barely speak. I have seen men and women sobbing and quiet groups of mourners sitting cross legged in prayer circles.
But there is also a real sense of rage. Fr. Frank Pavone, spiritual adviser to Schiavo's parents, called what happened this morning "a killing." I just walked past a woman holding a sign with pictures of Scott Peterson, O.J. Simpson and Michael Schiavo. It said "Three of a kind."
Syracuse, N.Y. :
It seemed that many conservatives had no problem when the judicial branch (Supreme Court) settled the election between Gore and Bush. But when it came to the Terri Schiavo case, they became upset about the judicial branch's powers. But isn't it true that the judges were simply following the laws?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Certainly, Michael Schiavo's lawyers would agree with you. What's fascinating is that this case has gotten essentially the same rulings from judges who are Democrats and Republicans. The appeals court that issued the last big written opinion in this case is stocked with Republican appointees, and the most strongly worded opinion in favor of Michael Schiavo, by Judge Birch, was penned by a man who was appointed by the father of the man who now occupies the White House: George H.W. Bush.
Most of the news reports from Florida have featured the "re-insert the feeding tube" advocates, yet opinion polls from Pinellas County indicate a slight majority in favor of leaving the feeding tube out. Is no one speaking for what appears to be a slight majority, or are statements from that faction perhaps less inflammatory and therefore less newsworthy?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: You raise a good point. Many are concerned about the media treating Michael Schiavo fairly and I can assure that most journalists I know have bent over backwards to present both sides equally. That said, the visual panorama of this case--the colorful protests, the big-time news conference--is dominated by supporters of Schiavo's parents. Occassionally one or two supporters of Michael Schiavo have appeared her, but they haven't stayed long. I don't think it's a matter of Michael Schiavo's supporters not saying anything newsworthy; I think it's a matter of them not being present.
New York, N.Y.:
Manuel, I accept and respect that Michael Schiavo said he was acting on his wife's wish not to be kept alive in a vegetative state. But given that her parents so desperately wanted her alive in any state (which I also can accept and respect), do you understand why he didn't give them custody -- regardless of how much hostility they felt for each other?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Michael Schiavo and his attorney have said repeatedly that Terri would not have wanted to live in her current condition. They say their long fight to have her tube removed is an effort to honor her wishes. This is a question that was litigated, with testimony from people who said Terri told them the same things Michael Schiavo testified about. Others testified that Terri told them she would have wanted to be kept alive. The judge in the case ruled that the testimony on Michael Schiavo's behalf was more credible and he ruled in his favor.
It seems like Michael Schiavo really stayed away from TV cameras in the past two weeks, while Terri's parents were on TV constantly. Does anyone know what Michael was doing? Or if his girlfriend/kids were with him at all?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Michael Schiavo spent most of the last few days inside the hospice with his wife, according to George Felos, Michael Schiavo's attorney. At times, Michael Schiavo was out of the room to allow Schiavo's parents and a few other members to visit her. Felos said the two sides who have fought so long would have been uncomfortable being in the room a the same time. This illustrates the depth of the animosity in this case. His girlfriend and children have made no public appearances that I am aware of.
After the election there was much talk about the polarization of the US public. It really does seem that we inhabit different realities. This sad case could be seen as a microcosm of that situation.
You must think about these things. How do you see the red/blue thing playing out over the next few years? Any chance of a more calm, reasonable middle reasserting itself in US public life and discourse?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Too early to tell. Some political types I've spoken to think this case could energize the conservative base and prod Pres. Bush to appoint judges with an even more conservative bent than he has been appointing. Clearly the action by Congress on Palm Sunday created some divisiveness. Now the question is how long are those lawmakers' memories?
Brookeville, Md. (USA):
Are the people you see today and have seen in your recent coverage fanatical or peaceful? Do you feel Michael Schiavo is in any danger in the near future?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: I think fanatical is a loaded word. I'll let you draw your own conclusions on this point. I can tell you that there are some extremely determined people here. A good number of them are familiar to me because I met them not that long ago during the huge uproar of the Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, though there have been a few sparks of anger, such as demonstrators taunting police or getting arrested for trying to storm past the security line.
Police in North Carolina have charged a man with offering $250,000 to kill Michael Schiavo, though his attorney has said he wasn't serious. Given that kind of development and others such as a bomb threat here, I think it would be safe to say that Michael Schiavo's security is a matter of concern.
What was the point of Michael Schiavo keeping the Schindlers from their daughter's bedside in her last moments?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Remember, that's the version we've heard from the confidants of Terri Schiavo's parents. They gave no reason. We may learn more later from Michael Schiavo's representatives.
Regardless, the anger expressed by the spokes people for Terri Schiavo's parents is indicative of the level of bitterness that has characterized this case for years and has continued to the very end of her life.
Is Mitch Albom correct when he says that the Schindlers have many connections among anti-abortion and conservative Christian groups, and that explains why Tom DeLay and Bill Frist dragged Congress into this?
Personally, I don't understand the intensity of emotions among conservative Christians about this case. Do you have any insights?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: I haven't seen Mitch Albom's piece about that topic. But I can tell you that the anti-abortion movement had a major presence here, from organizing demonstrations to helping with public relations. A series of conservative Christian groups are also heavily involved, both here at Pinellas Park and on the Internet where the case for Terri Schiavo's parents really gained a tremendous amount of momentum. Countless Web sites listed lawmakers' e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and some even had pre-prepared letters that people could copy and send.
All through this episode, the TV cameras and the media have been reporting from the hospice scene with the background of the TV screen being filled with the scene of the demonstrators. What was the size of the protestors -- 10s, 20, 100s ? And were there any opposing view demonstrators?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: The size varied. At times there were only handful of protestors, at other times there would be hundreds. Remember, this has been going on for more than two weeks. Protestors came and went according to the rhythmns of their lives and sometimes according to their ability to travel here from outside of the state. As I said before, there was almost no presence of demonsrtrators advocating Michael Schiavo's side, though occassionally one or two or three would show up.
This was a very difficult personal, family issue that really seems to have been exploited by outsiders who actually should have no say in a private issue. The appalling reaction of Congress was inexcusable. It also seems that media has portrayed a one-sided view of this matter in favor of conservatives, when in fact all polls indicate a majority of Americans fall on the side of Michael Schiavo.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: I don't see a question there, but am posting your thoughts so others can ponder them.
Hi Manuel, Thanks for the excellent, up-to-the-minute coverage. I'm interested in what you said about the rage of the protestors, particularly their accusations of murder against Michael Schiavo, judges, etc. Have there been any threats of violence against those the protestors are calling "killers?" Are authorities worried about this to the point of stepping up security for judges or Michael Schiavo's lawyers or others?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Thanks for the compliment. Fascinating case to cover.
In another answer, I talked about an arrest in North Carolina. Another man was arrested here for allegedly trying to steal a gun to liberate Terri. There's been a heavy security presence throughout and security concerns are sure to be paramount for Michael Schiavo and his blood relatives, particularly after a relative of his in Pennsylvania told police this that a man threatened to kill her if Terri died.
Do you, or any of your fellow reporters, have any opinion on old file footage being used? Did anyone in the media seen Terri recently?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Video images have been very important in this case. If you're interested, I believe six downloadable clips are on the Terrisfight.org Web site. These images were very effective in generating both empathy and support for the Schindlers, but Michael Schiavo's lawyers and medical experts have said that a lay person can mistake her movements for real cognition when they are actually reflex actions. No matter who you agree with, I recommend you checking out the clips. Fascinating viewing. I have shown them to friends and these viewings have prompted very interesting, thought-provoking conversations.
Almost one hour of chatting and not a single mention that some liberal politicians supported the Schindlers. Is it you or the moderator that made this editorial decision?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Yours is the first comment I've seen on this topic. But thanks for sharing your conspiracy theory.
How do you see a funeral taking place? Are the Schiavos and Schindlers so far apart that they would not attend the same funeral together, let alone agreeing on a eulogist?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: That issue, like everything else in this saga, has been litigated. Michael Schiavo wants to have his wife's remains cremated and buried at his family's plot in Pennsylvania. The Schindlers said that would be a violation of her Catholic faith. The judge sided with the Schindlers. According to confidants of the Schindlers there is almost no chance that they will join their son-in-law at a burial service.
And, on that note, I'm going to have to say goodbye. Thank you for all the throught-provoking questions.