Benjamin Schreiber is very much alive. But that hasn’t stopped him from arguing that he died four years ago.
After the convicted murderer collapsed in his prison cell in 2015, doctors restarted his heart five times. Recovering back at the Iowa State Penitentiary, Schreiber filed a novel legal appeal. Because he died before he was resuscitated, he had technically fulfilled his life sentence, he claimed.
Judges, however, aren’t buying it. Dying for a brief amount of time doesn’t amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday, saying that the 66-year-old will remain in prison until a medical examiner determines that he is dead for good.
“Schreiber is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot,” Judge Amanda Potterfield wrote.
Schreiber has been behind bars since 1996, when he was charged in the death of John Dale Terry, a 39-year-old whose bludgeoned body was found near an abandoned trailer in rural Agency, Iowa. Prosecutors contended that Schreiber, then 43, had plotted with Terry’s girlfriend before clubbing the man to death with the wooden handle of a pickax. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and in 1997 he was sentenced to life without parole.
Nearly two decades later, Schreiber was hit with severe septic poisoning. According to court records, he had developed kidney stones that were so large they “caused him to urinate internally.” On March 30, 2015, he fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors brought him back to life by administering epinephrine through an IV.
In April 2018, Schreiber filed for post-conviction relief, claiming that he was being held in prison illegally. His sentence was supposed to end with his death, he argued, which had taken place three years prior, when his heart stopped.
A district court judge wasn’t convinced by his creative attempt to find a loophole in the law, saying that Schreiber’s argument was “unpersuasive and without merit.” The fact that Schreiber was able to file a legal motion petitioning for his release, the judge added, “in itself confirms the petitioner’s current status as living.”
The inmate took his quest to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which was similarly unpersuaded. In an opinion published Wednesday, the panel of judges didn’t attempt to reckon with the spiritual or medical definition of “death,” a philosophical question that has generated intense legal wrangling and complex debates over medical ethics elsewhere. Instead, they zeroed in on what “life in prison” means.
“We do not believe the legislature intended this provision [ …] to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration lead to their resuscitation by medical professionals,” Potterfield wrote.
Noting that they couldn’t find any case law that would back Schreiber’s position, the appeals court judges also ruled that he couldn’t have it both ways — claiming to be dead as far as the criminal justice system was concerned while simultaneously going on with his life.
In his appeal, Schreiber had also argued that doctors violated his rights by failing to follow his “do not resuscitate” order when they pulled him from the brink of death. According to court records obtained by the Des Moines Register, hospital staffers made the decision after conferring with Schreiber’s brother, who only consented to giving him medicine to ease his pain. The panel declined to address that question because a lower court has yet to rule on it.
Schreiber remains incarcerated at the Iowa State Penitentiary in rural Lee County. His attorney could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday night, and it’s unclear if he plans to take his fight to a higher court.