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Prisoner Who ‘Died’ And Got Brought Back To Life Argued His Life Sentence Had Ended

In a surprising turn of events, a prisoner who was briefly declared dead before being revived made an unusual claim. This strange and thought-provoking case raises big questions about law, life, and what really counts as serving time.

Court denies Iowa inmate's claim that life-sentence should …

Benjamin Schreiber’s Court Sentence

In the late 1990s, Iowa courts sentenced Benjamin Schreiber to life without parole for murder. This sentence was meant to keep him in prison until his death, a notion Schreiber contested after a severe medical incident left him temporarily dead.

In March 2015, untreated kidney stones caused Schreiber severe septic poisoning, leading to his clinical death, which he later used as the basis for an unprecedented legal challenge. He sought post-conviction relief, arguing that his temporary death should fulfill his life sentence.

This case sparked a significant legal and philosophical debate about the definition of a life sentence’s conclusion. The court faced the challenge of determining whether temporary clinical death qualifies as completing a life sentence, exploring both the literal and intended meanings of such sentences.

The implications of Schreiber’s argument were profound. An affirmation of his claim could have allowed other inmates to challenge their sentences on medical or technical grounds. This scenario prompted legal experts to consider how advances in medical technology could intersect with and potentially challenge established legal doctrines.

Ultimately, this case pushed into new legal territory, prompting debates on whether legal definitions and procedures need updates to align with medical and technological advancements. It underscored the need for the legal system to evolve as society and technology advance.

The Emergency

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In March 2015, Benjamin Schreiber faced a severe medical emergency due to large kidney stones that led to septic poisoning and temporarily stopped his heart, effectively causing his death. Found unconscious in his prison cell, prison staff quickly responded, and medical personnel revived him five times, successfully resuscitating him each time his heart stopped. This severe episode of septic poisoning, which resulted from a serious complication of kidney stones, underlines the gravity of his medical condition. Schreiber had long suffered from chronic kidney stones, enduring repeated bouts of severe pain. Despite undergoing surgery to remove the stones before this life-threatening incident, the problem persisted and worsened. Ultimately, the kidney stones caused urinary retention, which led to urine backing up into his kidneys, triggering the septic poisoning that nearly ended his life. Defining “Life Sentence”Legally, a “life sentence” mandates that an individual remains incarcerated for their entire natural life. Typically reserved for severe crimes, this sentence serves societal needs for retribution and deterrence. However, its definition can vary as some jurisdictions may allow for parole after a specified period.

In certain instances, life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole (LWOP), marking them as some of the most severe penalties, second only to capital punishment. Such sentences highlight the severity of the offenses and the perceived continuous threat to society.

The enforcement of life sentences often leads to complex ethical, legal, and practical dilemmas, particularly as ongoing medical advancements challenge traditional conceptions of life and death.

Professional Views and Opinions

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While Schreiber’s case is unique, it’s not the first time prisoners have sought release based on extraordinary circumstances. However, his claim of having “died” raised new legal and ethical issues, particularly regarding the interpretation of a life sentence and what constitutes death. The case underscored the need for clear guidelines to address such unusual situations, balancing legal integrity with evolving medical realities.

The legal community remains divided over Schreiber’s case. Some experts insist that life sentences should only conclude upon an inmate’s irreversible natural death, regardless of medical incidents. Others argue for a reevaluation of legal definitions in light of modern medical advancements, suggesting that failing to adapt could render the law obsolete.

Policymakers and ethicists also contribute to the debate, highlighting the potential risks and benefits of setting new precedents based on medical technicalities. The ongoing discourse underscores the complex interplay between law, ethics, and medicine.

What should’ve been done?

The Benjamin Schreiber case underscores the pressing need for the legal system to update and clarify its definitions and policies concerning life sentences in the face of advanced medical interventions. It highlights the necessity for a clear, legally acknowledged definition of death, one that aligns with both contemporary medical understanding and judicial contexts. Legislation should also address how to handle cases where a prisoner experiences reversible clinical death or similar medical anomalies. Ensuring that the law stays abreast of medical advancements not only prevents legal ambiguities but also ensures fairness and relevance in sentencing. Such reforms will protect the integrity of the judicial system while adapting to the evolving landscape of medical technology.

Additionally, there should be provisions in the law for reviewing and possibly revising sentences in cases where medical anomalies might affect the fulfillment of a sentence’s terms. This could involve establishing a standard protocol for judicial review when a prisoner’s clinical death and subsequent revival bring into question the completion of their life sentence.

As of the latest available information, there have been no specific legal reforms or advancements directly resulting from Benjamin Schreiber’s case regarding the definitions of life sentences in relation to clinical death or medical resuscitation. Schreiber’s case, while highly publicized and thought-provoking, did not immediately lead to changes in law. It primarily served to highlight potential discrepancies and challenges at the intersection of legal definitions and modern medical capabilities.

Legal systems often take considerable time to change, especially when such changes involve deep-seated definitions like those concerning life, death, and the completion of sentences. Reforms of this nature would require extensive deliberation, consensus among lawmakers, and often, a series of similar cases that underscore the need for adjustment before legislative changes are considered or implemented.

However, the discussions generated by this case could influence future legal considerations and might prompt legal scholars, policymakers, and legislators to reexamine and possibly revise the relevant statutes to better align with contemporary medical realities and ethical standards.

The Outcome of Benjamin Schreiber’s Case

Benjamin Schreiber’s novel legal argument, asserting that his brief clinical death fulfilled the terms of his life sentence, was not successful for several reasons, as outlined by the Iowa Court of Appeals. Firstly, the court ruled that Schreiber’s interpretation of “death” did not align with legal standards. They clarified that the completion of a life sentence is legally understood to occur only at the point of an inmate’s natural, irreversible death. The court also noted that Schreiber’s revival and subsequent medical recovery indicated that his death was neither permanent nor conclusive, which are critical aspects of how death is understood in both medical and legal contexts. The judges expressed that allowing Schreiber’s argument would effectively redefine the meaning of a life sentence based on a transient medical condition, potentially setting a precarious legal precedent. Furthermore, the court emphasized that the law is designed to interpret sentences based on clear, factual outcomes—not unusual or extraordinary medical events. They argued that to uphold Schreiber’s claim would open the floodgates to a broad range of similar claims from other prisoners, complicating the legal system’s approach to life sentences and potentially undermining the justice system’s foundational principles.

In their decision, the court maintained a strict interpretation of sentencing laws, reinforcing that a life sentence should unequivocally end only upon the inmate’s definitive and undeniable death. This outcome reflects a conservative approach to legal interpretation, prioritizing the stability and predictability of law over the complexities introduced by rare and exceptional circumstances.  

Reflections and Recommendations

The Benjamin Schreiber case serves as a stark reminder of the complexities that arise when traditional legal definitions meet modern medical technologies. This case points to the urgent need for legal systems to evolve in response to advancements in healthcare that challenge our conventional understanding of life and death. It is recommended that legal frameworks be revised to clearly define what constitutes the end of life in a legal context, incorporating insights from medical science about reversible clinical deaths and resuscitation. Such definitions should be standardized across jurisdictions to prevent inconsistencies and confusion in legal proceedings. Moreover, there should be mechanisms for reevaluating life sentences in extraordinary medical circumstances to ensure that the sentences still serve their intended purpose of justice. This includes establishing guidelines for courts on how to handle cases where the conditions of a sentence are technically met due to unusual medical situations. By updating these legal standards, the justice system will not only maintain its relevance but also uphold its integrity and adaptability in a changing world. Such proactive measures will ensure that the law remains just and equitable in the face of unforeseen challenges posed by medical and technological progress.

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