Thursday, June 16, 2005

My interview with Schindler family attorney David Gibbs III

David Gibbs III

[NOTE: You can also listen to this interview by clicking here:]

"Will America learn its lesson from this case? Has this become the Roe v Wade for mercy killing, for assisted suicide? Can senior citizens be warehoused and killed? can disabled people have their life ended?... has Terri's case now opened it up in America where life will be that disposable? Or will it be the shocking wake-up call that I believe it should be, where once again as a nation innocent life will be properly protected."--David Gibbs III

David Gibbs III of the Christian Law Association has represented the family of Terri Schindler Schiavo since 2003. I was able to interview David for my radio show, "Weekend Rockford." Following is a transcript of our interview.

[NOTE: David Gibbs III will be speaking this coming Sunday morning, June 19th, at 11 AM Berean Baptist Church, 5626 Safford Road in Rockford.]

CINDY: For several weeks this past winter and early spring, the nation was captivated by the story of Terri Schindler Schiavo. No matter where one stood on this young woman's fate, most people had a strong opinion one way or ther other on the case. Terri Schiavo died on March 31st after her feeding tube was removed, and after prolonged efforts by her family to intervene on her behalf. My guest today is the attorney who represents Terri's family in this case--he is attorney David Gibbs the third. David, welcome to Weekend Rockford--I'm privileged to have you as my guest.

DAVID: Cindy, I'm honored to be with you, and it was my privilege to stand for the life of Terri Schiavo as her family so diligently and so boldly stood for for her right to live.

CINDY: David, you've once again been in the news in recent days, as Terri Schiavo's autopsy results have been released. And I understand that the Schindlers have released a statement to the media concerning those results...can you share that with us?

DAVID: Oh, absolutely. We need to remember that the IME, the independent medical examiner, is looking at a dead body, a corpse, and trying to evaluate by looking at what is there and essentially, we understood as the Schindler family and as the legal team that Terri was brain-injured. And he has confirmed in that report that indeed she was significantly brain-injured.

But that does not eliminate some of the questions that still remain as to what caused her injuries, and certainly what we would call the larger moral or legal issues still remain.

The IME said clearly that Terri was not terminal, and what that means is she was not going to die because of her brain-injured condition, her disability; she had no living will, she'd put nothing in writing as to her wishes; her heart was remarkably strong and would have continued for many years; and that the immediate cause of death was this brutal dehydration that Terri was taken, where she had no hydration, no nourishment, and died over those period of days.

"Moral shame"

And so, what the IME put forward really doesn't erase, in our opinion, the the moral shame of what happened--that the quality of a person's life became the basis for which it could be ended. And to think that in this country if we say someone's blind or brain-injured that we would allow them to be put to death, it just seems so barbaric and so heartless that as a nation there is still not an outcry that Terri, a woman that was not terminal, was killed in such an unbelievable fashion.

CINDY: Most of the mainstream media is trumpeting that the results vindicate her husband's belief that she should have been allowed to die. I'd like to quote conservative Christian blogger La Shawn Barber, who I think sums up what a lot of Americans are feeling right now. "For me, the whole tragedy surrounding Terri and the people who wanted her dead didn’t hinge on how severely brain-damaged she was. She was alive and wasn’t on life support, and her husband’s credibility was extremely low, too low to trust his assertion that Terri wanted to die if ever severely brain-damaged. Forget about what you’d want if you were ever in the same condition. Take yourselves out of the equation.

"The way they killed her was appalling, and I was angry for a long time afterward. (and she goes on to say). The doctor-induced starvation was immoral."

Unanswered questions

David, Terri's parents, the Schindlers, say there are still a lot of unanswered questions. What are some of those unanswered questions?

DAVID: Well, one of the major unanswered questions is how did Terri's condition happen? What occurred back in 1990? Terri was a healthy 26-year-old girl--she collapsed--the IME said her brain injury was caused from lack of blood flow, lack of oxygen to the brain over a protracted time period. And some leading theories were kind of ruled out by the medical examiner's report. Many people had said it was bulimia, an eating disorder, some had said it was a heart attack, and the medical examiner said there is no evidence--matter of fact, in his opinion, the evidence rules out the bulimia, rules out the heart attack, and so, one of the leading questions that for any parent, any family, is very troubling, is what happened to Terri that night?

Michael Schiavo, the husband in 1990, has given so many inconsistent statements that it leaves people wondering what occurred.

For example, he said to the medical examiner, he said to "Larry King Live", that Terri collapsed at 4:30 in the morning. Well then, 911 wasn't called till 5:40 in the morning--that's an hour and 10 minutes. Seventy minutes went by, if these reports are believable, where Terri is in this collapsed condition, and getting no care, no assistance, and certainly if blood isn't flowing to a person's brain, not just every minute, but literally every second counts. And the family would just like to understand, why are these time discrepancies? What actually caused Terri's condition? And so, in a measure, by ruling out the eating disorder, by ruling out the heart attack, the medical examiner may have raised more questions than his report actually answers.

CINDY: So what's the next step for the Schindlers? Are they going to challenge this in any way legally?

DAVID: Well, the medical examiner's report is put forward by the government, and what they do, is they lay out, this is what we've found. The medical examiner said it is an open investigation--if there's new evidence or things that come forward, he would gladly re-review his findings. And so, in all of that, we are hoping that possibly Mr. Schiavo or somone would step forward and give us more of an indication what happened that night.

Focusing on Terri's legacy

The Schindlers themselves are wanting to focus at this point on Terri's legacy. They stood as a loving mother and father would--I mean, you need to understand, even though she was 41, Terri was their daughter. They loved her more than life itself, they had to watch her, and I was in the room with them, literally be dehydrated to death. And the medical examiner was pretty clear that it was not a pretty dehydration, that it was very severe and very unpleasant. And here the family had to watch that, and they had fought so hard for Terri's life. But now their focus is "OK, Terri paid this incredible sacrifice, she's now in eternity, she's now at peace, but what can we do to make sure no other family, no other patient, no other person, whether disabled, senior citizen, or whoever, has to undergo this barbaric death that Terri underwent."

And so they're really wanting to focus on seeing laws changed nationwide, seeing the heart and mind of Americans changed, where people would once again have that compassion for someone like Terri.

Where do we go from here?

CINDY: On your Christian Law Association website, you have an article titled "Where do we go from here?" that analyzes some things we should learn from the Terri Schiavo case. What are some things that should be done legally to insure that tragedies like this don't happen again?

DAVID: Well, number one, I think our nation needs to decide that we are once again gonna err on the side of always protecting innocent life. I appreciate President Bush yesterday issuing a statement saying in a sense, he was glad they had stood for Terri, and that you always want to err on the side of life. And in this nation, I think it's important that we realize it's a crime, for example, to starve a dog or a cat to death. It's something our constitution will not allow to happen to a convicted mass murderer.

But here, Terri Schiavo wasn't an animal, she was a woman, and she wasn't a convicted mass murder, she was an innocent disabled woman. And in a sense she caught a little gap in our law where others were allowed to come in and say, Her life doesn't matter, and we will dispose of her in this manner.

And so, I think we need to be looking at, in our law, will we put adequate protection for the disabled? will we make sure that once again innocent life is protected as it was intended by our founding fathers?

And we need to remember, too, Terri Schiavo never put anything in writing. You cannot, in a will, leave your refrigerator orally to a person after you die. Something as simple as a piece of personal property cannot transfer unless there is something in writing. But, unbelievably, weak hearsay oral statements will allow someone to be put to death. And I think we need to see the law raise the standard to say we will always err on the side of life unless there is some kind of clear document where people have made informed choices.

In this case, we really believe Terri would have wanted to live. I can't imagine she would want her family to go through what she had to have them watch; I can't imagine she would want to go through the brutally painful dehydration that was described by the medical examiner.

CINDY: Let's back up a bit, David... how did you personally come to be involved in the Terri Schiavo case?

DAVID: Bob and Mary Schindler walked into my office in the year 2003 and said, "Mr. Gibbs, is there anything you can do? Our lawyers have told us everything is exhausted, there's nothing that can be done, and they are going to kill our daughter."

And I had read a little bit in the media--it hadn't quite caught the attention back then that it caught in 2005--but basically, I thought Terri was brain dead. I didn't understand she was just brain-injured, that all she needed was food and water, that the level of her disability was the reason why the husband was moving to have her killed. Then I was shocked to find out that the husband had moved on with another woman and had been living with her for almost 10 years--I mean, the more I heard, the more unbelievable it became.

Then I went to see Terri. And in seeing Terri, it was quite remarkable to me how animated she was, how excited she was to see her parents, how she would laugh, how she would cry. And as I looked at Terri, I said, "Clearly, this woman, while disabled--we don't dispute that--is a life worth saving, is a life worth living."

And we watched the Florida legislature pass what would become Terri's Law; we had the joy of handing that document to Mary Schindler on the night it became law, and literally at that point Terri's life was spared for a couple of years. And then we had the privilege of serving through March 31st, 2005 as their lead counsel, and we have continued to help serve the family at this point in helping them establish what will Terri's legacy be.

And in a sense will America, Cindy, learn its lesson from this case? Has this become the Roe v Wade for mercy killing, for assisted suicide? Can senior citizens be warehoused and killed? can disabled people have their life ended? Well, we would certainly hope not. And historically that's been prohibited in America. But has Terri's case now opened it up in America where life will be that disposable? Or will it be the shocking wake-up call that I believe it should be, where once again as a nation innocent life will be properly protected.

CINDY: Many people commented on the fact that Terri's case was a very tragic moment in our nation's history, even a turning point of sorts. This quote is from the Christian Law Association website: "If the law is not changed, the case of Schindler v. Schiavo has the potential to become (as you said) the Roe v. Wade of mercy killing, allowing senior citizens and disabled people nationwide to be killed, and allowing family members “the choice” to eliminate inconvenient life at both ends of the spectrum." That sounds pretty ominous, but we've all heard about the slippery slope... Are you worried, David, about the future, in the light of what happened with Terri?

DAVID: No question. If we don't, basically, stop the insanity, I fear for my children. I fear someday for my grandchildren. What kind of America will we be handing them?

You need to understand, you look in history, and people say, how could the Nazis in Germany do the horrible things that they did? It didn't start one day with them saying, "Let's take millions of people, and because they're Jewish or because they're unpopular, let's go ahead and have them slaughtered." It began with a slippery slope where the government began to decide who could live, who could die, who mattered, who was valuable, and when you start getting into that type of analysis, it's a very scary slippery slope.

The worldwide media was very enamored with the Terri Schiavo case; as many people know, it went around the globe. But the international media had an interesting question. They said, "We understand this woman is disabled, is being starved to death, and the President and the Congress tried to stop it, but here's our question: By what moral authority--America's over in Iraq for human rights; America stopped Afghanistan because of their terrorism and abuses; America stopped the Nazis in Germany back in World War II, all based on it was the morally right thing to do. Now here's the quesiton: By what moral authority does America allow Terri Schiavo to ie this barbaric death?"

The answer, Cindy, is quite obvious: there is no moral authority. This is absolutely insane that a disabled woman whose family wants to take care of her is literally is put to death before her eyes.

Why wouldn't the judge see Terri?

CINDY: David, you mentioned that you were able to be with Terri even as she was dying. One question that's been asked about the case, is why couldn't the judge have gone and witnessed for himself the situation with Terri?

DAVID: Oh, Cindy, a great question, and one that I was complaining, and raising, and arguing--and I felt that the judge--now you've got to understand, this is the man that holds Terri's life in his hands--never took the time to see Terri. She's the object of the whole litigation, she's the number one piece of evidence. Why wouldn't the judge take the time to, just with his own eyes, go look at Terri?

Why wouldn't the judge say, "Look, bring Terri to court." Terri could have been in a wheelchair and taken to court every time there was a hearing.

But in a sense, the judge walled himself off from Terri, and I think he just didn't want to have to see her as some of these decisions were made. I believe if he watched her interact with her mother, if he watched her enjoy listening to music, if he watched the Terri Schiavo that I saw, I believe there would have been no way he would allow her to be put to death in the manner she was.

And clearly, after they removed the food and water and she began into the severe dehydration process, that was an incredibly shocking and immensely sad thing to observe, to literally watch an otherwise healthy person being being dehydrated to death. And I think if he'd've seen what the the results of his court rulings were, that would certainly have an impact to possibly change his mind.

CINDY: One of the things the autopsy revealed was that Terri was blind. Does that surprise you?

DAVID: Well, no it does not, because clearly Terri had visual impairment. We knew that.

Terri could not see as well as we thought or hoped or wished she could. And again, the medical examiner is saying, from his review of her brain at the moment of her death, she was blind, that there was no way that she was seeing.

Clearly, Terri recognized people. And so, whether that was done through some very limited vision that was later lost, or whether she had an attuned sense of hearing, or sense of smell, or presence, I don't know. but I did watch Terri clearly recognize her mother and father; I watched her laugh, I watched her cry, she indicated pain. And again, not that her level of life or her quality of life should be the determination as to whether she should live or die, but clearly, Terri was very much alive.

And I think the medical examiner's report might be overstated in the popular media. They're kind of saying, "Well, she was pretty brain-injured, so it's OK to kill her." And I think we need to be careful that we don't make that moral leap.

Terri was dehydrated to death before our eyes as a nation. The moral shame of that is not erased because of her level of disability. I think it's irresponsible and in a measure heartless to say, just because someone's disabled, just because someone is in an injured condition, that it's now OK to kill them.

"We need a heart check"

And I think that we need to, in a sense, have a heart check, and say "What has happened to the compassion in our nation?"

CINDY: David, what can Christians do to combat this culture of death that seems to be holding sway in our nation right now?

DAVID: Well, number one, I think coming back to the heart issue, is to do a personal heart check. Do you have a proper heart and spirit towards those that the Bible calls "the least of these"? Whether it's a senior citizen, a disabled person, a young child--do we as a nation have the compassionate heart of God?
Number two, we certainly need to pray; and number three, I believe we need to see the laws and the policies all across our land change to what our founding father intended: the protection of innocent life.

Go here for more information on the Christian Law Association, and here for more on the ramifications of the Terri Schiavo case.

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