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Terri Schiavo Case: The Latest From Florida

Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; 12:30 PM

A federal judge in Tampa, Fla., this morning denied a request from the parents of Terri Schiavo to reinsert a feeding tube into the brain-damaged woman.

Read the story:Judge Refuses to Intervene in Schiavo Case (Post, March 22)

"All day today we're going to be seeing high-level legal maneuvering," says Washington Post staff writer-reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia who is in Tampa.

Roig-Franzia was online Tuesday, March 22, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the case and exactly what is happening today.

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.


Arlington, Va.: Congress long ago established a system whereby federal courts can review state-court death warrants (and other criminal sentences). If we are sufficiently mistrustful of the ability of state courts to justly end the life of a convict in custody that we have authorized the federal courts to take a second look, why is it unreasonable to establish a similar, quasi-habeas form of federal-court review of a state-court judgment ending the life of an incapacitated person who is under the court's supervision?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Interesting that you would mention habeas. This hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but there are actually two cases working through the federal courts right now. The first was a habeas corpus petition filed by the Schindlers on Friday before federal Judge James Moody. Moody rejected the claim, but the appeals court in Atlanta sent it back to him for reconsideration. At the same time, the other big case working through the court was argued before Judge Whittemore in Tampa. Because Moody's habeas case is moving at slower pace than Whittemore's case, it may have little effect on the final outcome.


Cubicle City, Washington, D.C.: Isn't Dr. Ronald Crawford, quoted in today's Post as supporting Mrs. Schiavo's side, a right-to-die advocate who supports removing feeding tubes from Alzheimer's patients who suffer from severe dementia? Is this a relevant fact people should know about?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I believe you mean Cranford. He's one of the nation's best known neurologists and has been involved in many of the biggest right-to-die, or as the Schindlers' attorneys call them right-to-live, cases in U.S. history. I haven't heard I'm called an advocate. His take on the Schiavo case is that Terri's cerebral cortex is essentially liquefied, that she has no cognition, no hope of recovery and is feeling no pain now. A neurologist working with the Schindler's disagrees, saying that she has some cognition and may even be trying to talk. The state judge, George Greer, ruled that neurologists who have taken Cranford's stance were right.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Roig-Franzia,

I notice that in your article today that those arguing for Terri Shiavo's feeding tube to be reinserted are aligned with various interest groups, "pro-life", "conservative," etc., whereas Michael Schiavo is generally pictured as the heroic individual seeking justice. But clearly Mr. Schiavo can be linked with various ideological groups as much as can the Schindler's. Why do you not indicate those interest groups as well? That would seem to be more objective reporting, no?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I disagree with your assessment of our piece. But I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.


Richmond, Va.: If the appeals court sides with the Schindlers, can/will it be immediately appealed by Michael Schiavo's lawyer to the Supreme Court? And haven't they already refused to intervene in the case?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Both sides are sure to appeal this case as far they can take it. You're right that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear cases related to Schiavo, but those were appeals of state court rulings. Now, we've got a whole new ballgame from a legal perspective. This is a federal court case based on the law that Congress passed Palm Sunday and that Pres. Bush signed. Different issues are on the table. The federal judge in Tampa refused to order the tube reinserted because he was not persuaded that the Schindlers have proved they would win the case on its merits. For the purpose of his ruling, he presumed that the new law is constitutional. But the question of its constitutionality could still be raised during appeals.


Columbus, Ind.: Can't something be done to have the husband removed as guardian, declared incompetent, or found abusive because of the lack of treatment he has failed to provide for his wife?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: The Schindlers have worked hard to do just that. But every time the courts have ruled against them. They've tried to force him to divorce Terri on the basis adultery because he lives with another woman, but is still married to Terri. But that was rejected by the courts. The courts also have rejected claims that he has a monetary conflict of interest because of medical malpractice suit he and Terri won. Michael Schiavo says the money went to doctor and attorney fees in this long case, which has consumed the courts for seven years.


Lawrence, Kans.: Has there been any concern expressed for the safety of the judges in this action? In light of the murders of Judge Barnes and the mother and husband of Judge Lefkow, as well as the threats made against Judge Greer, the actions of Congress seem particularly inexcusable.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Good question. Things are tense around the courthouses. Lots of security. Judge Greer, who was in charge of the case before it moved to the federal courts, conducted his last hearing by phone from an undisclosed location. He is said to be protected by bodyguards.


Dallas, Tex.: Having read Judge Whittemore's order, it's clear that, whatever the moral issues invoked outside the courtroom, the Schindlers brought a remarkably flimsy case to court. Who was involved in drafting their federal suit, anyway?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: David Gibbs is the lead attorney. Judge Whittemore often pressed him to provide more case law to back his arguments during yesterday's hearing. On multiple occasions, Gibbs said he could not provide the information the judge wanted, though Gibbs pleaded for more time to do legal research, noting that he filed legal papers at three in the morning and was operating on almost no sleep. Nonetheless, the judge told Gibbs that he could only rule on the evidence before him. The jduge was clearly skeptical about many of the legal arguments and even said Gibbs would be "hard-pressed" to convince him that Terri's constitutional due process rights were violated.


Vienna, Va.: Seems like the "right-to-death" laws in this country are a compromise. You are allowed to stipulate that you would not like to receive life support, thereby enabling yourself to die if you are permanently incapacitated (one for the liberals), but you are not allowed to expedite that process, which would be "murder" (one for the conservatives). If we were able to help people like Ms. Schiavo die quicker, starvation and dehydration wouldn't seem so appalling. If someone has to go, why not let them go in the "best" way we can.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Your questin raises interesting semantic points. The Schindlers want this to be a right to life case. Others say it's a right to die case. There are those who argue that Terri's death would be an act of mercy and others who say it is murder. Clearly semantics mean a lot in this emotional, utterly wrenching, saga.


Sterling, Va.: People are so quick to judge Michael Schiavo. Don't you think he already did everything he could earlier in this episode, like 15 years ago, to try to save her? Also, if I were to enter a vegetative state, I sure hope my significant other would find someone else to make them happy.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Michale Schiavo has been taking a beating in a lot of forums. Two days ago, while driving to the hospice, I heard a talk radio commentator here call him a "dirt bag." Michael Schiavo says he's only doing what his wife told him she would have wanted. Judge Greer found Michale Schiavo's recollections of these converations to be credible--more believeable than testimony from her parents that she would have wanted to live under these circumstances. Obviously, these are extremely difficult cases, but lawyers for Michael Schiavo argued that the judge needed to side with one side or the other, and he obviously agreed. Others argue that since there is some doubt are wishes that the judge should have "erred on the side of life," a phrase that was also used by Pres. Bush in his remarks about the case.


Provo, Utah: How's this for a compromise: all sides agree to give Terri Schaivo one year. During that time, she undergoes rigorous therapy, of the kind her family says will benefit her. At the end of that period, she'll be assessed by an independent, impartial group of neurologists. If she has made no progress, the feeding tube will be reomved and all sides will end their legal fight.

What do you think?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I think Michael Schiavo's attorneys would argue that your solution would be a victory for the other side. Their contention is that all the studies and hearings that took place before have established a strong evidentiary backing for removing her feeding tube. The Schindlers, of course, disagree, claiming that their daughter's interested have not been represented by the court-appointed experts and that alternative therapies, including hyper-baric treatment, which involves placing the patient in a space filled with high levels of oxygen, could help improve her condition.


Silver Spring, Md.: One of the Schindler's lawyers is quoted as saying that if Terri dies as a result of her feeding tube being withdrawn, her soul would be damned in accordance with her religious beliefs. How is such an argument permissible in a court of law? Moreover, what bizarre catechism is this lawyer trying to cite?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Judge Whittemore seemed inclined to hear a goodly amount of arguing about Terri's religious beliefs. Her lawyer was referring to statements made last year by Pope John Paul II, who said that water and food are basic requirements and morally obligatory in most instances. The judge was skeptical about this line of reasoning. He questioned whether it would be possible to know whether Terri would have wanted to comply with the pope's statement. He also noted that the pope's statement was made 14 years after she suffered massive brain damage. Michael Schiavo's attorney also tried to douse the religouos freedom argument by recounting testimony that she did not attend mass regularly before her heart attack, a move clearly intended to raise questions about how devout of a Catholic she was.


Lorton, Va.: I have heard/read reports that Terri's brain is liquid/liquified now.

Is this the case? And if it is, how could any therapy/treatment help her if there's no brain there?


Manuel Roig-Franzia: Yes, neurologists who have examined scans of her brain say her cebreal cortex is essentially liquefied, and that use that observation to assert that she has no hope of recovery. The Schindlers' experts disagree, saying new treatments could help her.


Austin, Tex.: What is the path of the case through the courts from here? The appeals court will rule in the next hours? If it rules against re-inserting the feeding tube, the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, right? And the Supreme Court has already taken a position. Even if the case is different legally, they really couldn't very well decide to take a position that would have the opposite effect from the one they made last week. Could they?

Please clarify what the next days are likely to look like.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Sure. First to the appeals court in Atlanta, then almost surely to the U.S. Supreme Court. You're right that the high court refused to hear the case earlier, but remember that was an appeal of state court rulings. This is now a federal case with new issues. The previous denial, from what lawyers tell me, does not guarantee that there will be another.


Washington, D.C.: Assuming the courts rule against the Schindlers, do you expect Congress to attempt to pass further legislation to require that the tube be reinserted?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Good question. This case has been so remarkable that it almost defies prediction. If Congress were to decide to get involved again, it will have to act fast. Remember, Terri's feeding tube was removed Friday. Doctors say she could live up to 2 weeks, but there is also a possibility that she could die sooner. Obviously, the clock means everything now.


Rockville, Md.: So ... basically, Terri Schaivo is this year's Elian Gonzalez?

Manuel Rog-Franzia: Well, both have been the subject of intense worldwide interest. You hear the term "media circus" bandied about a lot here. I let you decide how this one compares with the Elian saga. But, it sure is interesting how many of these huge news stories come out of Florida. Remember that other one, the one that had something to do with who got to be president?


Wheaton, Md.: Since we only get what the press gives us on this, I will not make any statements on who is right or wrong in this case.
I would like to know a few things though, such as ... is the husband doing this because divorce/annulment (and relinquishing guardianship to her parents) not an option?
Also, how can allowing her to starve to death be even slightly moral? Granted, death will be caused by dehydration, but the result is the same.
It is easy to say "it's only a natural result of her condition", but the same could be said of a convicted convict who is locked in a cell and left with no means of sustainance ... he too would die due to the natural result of not eating or drinking.
If allowing her to die is the "moral thing", then why not assisted suicide rather than sustained suffering?
If allowing her to die in this manner is not "immoral", then I think execution methods might also need a bit of rethinking. If anyone deserves such treatment, it would be those sentenced to capital punishment, but I digress. Personally, I feel that nobody should be so treated.
If nothing else, the husband should be forced to be with her around the clock until her demise. It is his decision to do this, and by goodness he should be held to witness the results.
Either keep her alive or assist in a speedy and painless passing. Starvation is one of the most Immoral acts one can have put upon them. Thank you.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Lots of interesting points here; many turn on how a person feels about the morality of these kinds of cases, so I'll throw your thoughts out for others to chew on.


Baltimore, Md.: Why hasn't there been more of a discussion of a husband's rights to decide his wife's fate. Isn't there some Biblical reference to a husband taking precedence once there is a marriage? Also, aren't our laws set up to recognize a husband over parents in all other aspects of the legal system? I'm not getting why, even if there wasn't a living will and in the absence of other information, Michael Schiavo wasn't give a presumption of knowing his wife's wishes.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Well, the Florida courts have ruled that Michael Schiavo has the right to make decisions about his wife's care. The Schindlers have tried to make a case that his right should be revoked for a variety of reasons, including the fact he lives with another woman and his two children with her, but so far the courts have disagreed with the parents.
This does raise meaty questions about these cases. Walk the protest line and you'll hear lots of people saying that blood relatives should have the upperhand. But the courts don't see it that way.


Washington, D.C.: The district court opinion in this case makes clear that the federal constitutional claims brought by the plaintiffs are really quite weak (indeed, they're the precise sort of claims for dubious constitutional rights, e.g. state court judge failed to personally interview Schiavo, that congressional conservatives who spearheaded the Palm Sunday law typically denigrate). Did any of the advocates for congressional intervention not give any substantive thought to what would happen once they got the case into federal court?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I know some in Congress were pressed about whether the law would REQUIRE a judge to reinsert the tube. They responded that it wasn't written that way. It merely shifted jurisdiction to the federal courts, though Sen. Frist and others said they hoped the federal judges would keep her alive long enough to conduct the new judicial review that Congress said the Schindlers have a right to ask for.


Washington, D.C.: If they believe in God, why not take away the tube and let God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? If she lives or dies, then God's will be done, but I am missing something in this argument to keep this woman on these lifesaving machines because it's wrong to kill someone. What about her quality of life?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: As you correctly point out, spirituality plays a big role in the debate. Your argument wouldn't be received well at the demonstrations outside the hospice, but it's likely that Michael Schiavo's camp would agree with your logic.


Washington, D.C.: Could you clarify just how much say Michael Schiavo has in this matter? It's my understanding that he turned the decision about whether to remove the feeding tube over to the courts, so he can't do anything to stop it now. Was that swept away be the bill passed by Congress?

Manuel Rog-Franzia: He is Terri's guardian, so he makes decisions. But those decisions can be challenged in court and, boy have they been challenged. The case has worked through lower courts, appeals courts and up to the Supreme Court for seven years. The Schindlers are arguing that their daughter didn't get due process during all those hearings, but so far the federal court is not agreeing with them.


Arlington, Va.: My family has confronted these difficult end-of-life decisions several times over the years. I know one thing: we did not need the government's help -- and certainly not Tom DeLay's help -- in making those heartbreaking decisions.

Apparently the era of big government isn't over at all -- it's just beginning.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Well, we surely haven't heard the last about the political ripples of this case.


Washington, D.C.: Does Schiavo make any sounds or otherwise express pain from lack of hydration and nutrients?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Her parents say she is making sounds. A tape has made the rounds on the Internet, supposedly of Terri responding to her father in the past few days. Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, called it "a hoax."


Rockville, Md.: What are the implications of a congressman or president suggesting the correct outcome of a matter before a judge. Isn't there something in the Constitution preventing the prejudice of justice by members of Congress or the executive?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Michale Schiavo's lawyers say the implications are huge, that they could affect thousands of cases, even though the law was writing expressly for Terri. They also say that the law violates the fundamental American constitutional concept of separation of powers between the branches of government. But there are obviously a lot of people on Capitol Hill who believe that this is absolutely acceptable and does not violate the Constitution. Perhaps, at some point, the courts will decide. But Judge Whittemore's ruling today is not about the constitutionality of the law. He wrote that he presumed the law was constitutional for the purpose of his ruling, even though "there may be substantial issues concerning" its constitutionality.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Isn't it ironic that they are trying to withold food from someone who is in this position because she was bulimic?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Others have made that point, too. Her bulimia is one of the heartbreaking details in this heartbreaking case.


Washington, DC: God help me if I cannot place my faith in my husband, my doctors, and the courts to make good decisions for me. I hope ours is not the only family to be encouraged to discuss these issues and write our wishes down.

I find it somehow surprising that these very religious people are not more keen to see Terri finally be at peace in her heavenly reward. If I was as religious as they claim Terri was, I would be delighted to leave my earthly chains.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: There is a lot of talk about God in the public debate. It's one of the most fascinating elements of the case. People of faith have come to different conclusions about the morality of removing her feeding tube. The theologians are sure to ponder all this for a long, long time.

Thanks everyone for all the thought-provoking questions. It has been a pleasure to spend some talking with all of you about this amazing saga.


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