Are you a legal professional? Visit our professional site

Has an Inmate Completed His Life Sentence if He 'Dies' But Is Then Revived?

Has an Inmate Completed His Life Sentence if He Briefly 'Dies' But Is Then Revived? Flatline on cardiac monitor.
By Richard Dahl on November 14, 2019 12:00 PM

Just call him Lazarus.

Benjamin Schreiber, 66, is a living and breathing inmate in the Iowa State Penitentiary, where he is serving a life sentence for bludgeoning a man to death with an ax handle. But he claims that he technically died four years ago when septic poisoning caused his heart to stop beating.

Schreiber is among the living today only because doctors were able to revive him. But because his heart did stop for a time, Schreiber claims that he has completed his life sentence and should be released from prison.

The medical incident in question occurred in 2015, nine years after he began serving his life sentence. He suffered a severe kidney stone attack, collapsed from septic poisoning, and was rushed to the hospital. His heart stopped there and doctors resuscitated him five times.

Three years later, Schreiber filed a motion for post-conviction relief, arguing that his imprisonment was illegal because when his heart stopped back in 2015, that meant he had technically died. And if he had died, that meant he had completed serving his life sentence.

Courts Are Unmoved

A district court judge disagreed, finding his argument "unpersuasive and without merit." But that didn't stop Schreiber's quest to achieve justice in his perceived second life. He took his case to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

On Nov. 6, the court issued its ruling: "Schreiber is either still alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is actually dead, in which this appeal is moot."

The judges didn't attempt to answer thorny medical or ethical questions about when death occurs, but instead focused on the simpler legal concept of "life in prison."

"The plain reading of the statute is that a defendant convicted of a class 'A' felony must spend the rest of their natural life in prison, regardless of how long that period of time ends up being or any events occurring before the defendant's life ends," the court said. "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."

It remains unclear whether he will attempt to convince a higher court that he is truly a dead man walking.

Related Resources: