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Memories diverge on what Terri wanted

Five years ago, a judge heard from those who said she wouldn't want to be on life support, and those who said she would want to fight.

Published March 24, 2005

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Mary Schindler, Terri Schiavo's mother, is escorted out of the Woodside Hospice on Wednesday.

The funeral was over, and the Schiavo family had gathered at the Buck Hotel in Langhorne, Pa., for lunch.

Everyone sat around the table, lamenting how their grandmother had spent her last days. Doctors had kept her alive on a machine, against her wishes. On Scott Schiavo's left was his sister-in-law, Terri. Years later, he testified what the young, vibrant woman said to him that day in 1988:

"If I ever go like that, just let me go," he recalled Terri saying. "Don't leave me there. I don't want to be kept alive on a machine."

Those words - more than anything else - explain how Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer five years ago came to rule on the simple but perplexing question at the heart of the Terri Schiavo case: What would she have wanted?

In end-of-life cases, Florida law says a judge must follow the person's last wishes, if they can be established. If a judge finds "clear and convincing" evidence that a person would not want to be kept alive, the judge can order treatment stopped.

The best evidence of a person's wishes is a will or a written document. But when no document exists, as in the Schiavo case, judges must look for other clues, like the recollections of friends and relatives.

When Greer came to grapple with this question in the Schiavo case in 2000, he heard from five people who said they knew what Terri wanted. Two supported Terri's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler. On the other side were Terri's brother-in-law Scott, her sister-in-law and friend Joan Schiavo, and her husband.

Amid the tumult of this week, what was said in the quiet of Greer's courtroom five years ago has been drowned out.

* * *

On the Monday in January 2000 when the Schiavo case went to trial, the Schindlers' lawyer remembers being surprised to see a St. Petersburg Times reporter in court.

What are you doing here, Patricia Campbell asked. She had no anticipation that the case would make the front page.

Back then, Campbell was working alone, without an assistant to help. On the other side was Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, who had handled the seminal right-to-die case of Estelle Browning, which went to the Florida Supreme Court in 1990.

Campbell said in an interview Wednesday that she took the case out of sympathy for the Schindlers. She said about 20 attorneys had turned down the couple, who had little money.

Campbell, who now has a prestigious AV rating from the Martindale-Hubbell lawyer peer review system, had never handled a right-to-die case. She did not have money to find witnesses, she said. Indeed, Campbell did not take depositions from Joan and Scott Schiavo before the trial. Normally, that would be a basic step for a lawyer preparing for trial.

Campbell presented just two witnesses to address the claim that Terri would not want her feeding tube removed.

The first was Terri's mother.

Mrs. Schindler said Terri had remarked about the high-profile case of Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents persuaded the New Jersey Supreme Court to turn her ventilator off in 1976.

The case had been on TV in the late 1970s, when they discussed it. She quoted Terri as saying: "Just leave her alone. Leave her. If they take her off, she might die. Just leave her alone, and she will die whenever."

Then, Campbell asked two critical questions about Terri's wishes.

"Did Terri tell you what she would want done if she were on a ventilator?"

Mrs. Schindler: "No."

"If she were on a feeding tube?"


A friend from Terri's teenage years, Diane Meyer, also testified that Terri had commented on the Quinlan case.

"One of the things (Terri) said is, how did they know (Quinlan) would want this," Meyer said.

Felos undercut Meyer's testimony by casting doubt on how old Terri was when she made the comments. Regardless of the comments, Felos argued Terri changed her mind later, and made statements as a married woman that revealed her true intent.

Felos put three witnesses on the stand. The first was Michael Schiavo.

During a train trip, Michael testified the couple talked about her sick grandmother. Terri said if she fell ill, she would not want to burden relatives. "If I ever have to be a burden to anybody, I don't want to live like that," she said, according to her husband.

Another time, they were watching a TV show about people on feeding tubes. Terri said she would never want to be like that, Michael testified.

Campbell attacked Michael, suggesting he had a financial motive to lie. If Terri died, he would inherit her estate and what was left of her $700,000 share of the malpractice settlement. Campbell noted Michael had become romantically involved with other women since Terri's collapse.

But Greer ultimately believed Michael's testimony, in part because it matched what Scott and Joan Schiavo said. Campbell did not even dispute their testimony, Greer wrote in his opinion.

Joan was married to William Schiavo Jr., Michael's older brother, and was one of Terri's close friends. Joan testified they talked about the right-to-die issue repeatedly, as many as 12 times, because a friend had to remove her baby from a feeding tube.

Another time, a movie on TV about a man trapped in a coma prompted the conversation.

Terri said, "If that ever happened to one of us, in our lifetime, we would not want to go through that," Joan testified. "That we would want it stated in our will we would want the tubes and everything taken out."

Fifteen days later, Greer ruled.

Times staff writer Kelley Benham contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 24, 2005, 01:21:06]

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