Can a near death experience end a life sentence?

I don’t know if this guy has any sort of legal leg to stand on (a pun that will only make sense after you read further) but he certainly earns points for legal creativity. Benjamin Schreiber, 66, is currently a lifetime resident of a federal penitentiary for the bludgeoning murder of a man in the nineties. He’s serving life without parole, but he and his attorneys are attempting to claim that he’s finished his sentence and should, therefore, be released.

The reason? Because he died four years ago. But much like the man who was turned into a Newt in a famous Monty Python movie, he got better. (BBC)

A court in the US has refused to release a convict who argued that he had completed his life sentence when he briefly “died”.

Benjamin Schreiber, 66, was sentenced to life without parole in Iowa for bludgeoning a man to death in 1996.

He said his sentence ended when his heart stopped during a medical emergency four years ago, even though he was revived.

But judges said Schreiber’s bid – while original – was “unpersuasive”.

After suffering from untreated kidney stones in prison four years ago, Schreiber developed septic poisoning, went into cardiac arrest and was briefly medically dead. But the doctors were able to restart his heart and revive him. He has since largely recovered from his condition.

Because of the fact that he was supposed to remain in prison until he died, Schreiber’s legal team claims that he completed his sentence. The court was unimpressed, saying that it was unlikely that the prisoner was actually dead because he signed his own court filing.

Sure, this sounds like nothing more than a bit of legal silliness, but is it possible that the guy has a point? After all, there’s an age-old belief in the United States that you can only hang a condemned man once. If he survives, it must be the “will of God” and he should go free. So might that apply in Schreiber’s case?

The problem is that the idea of what’s known as “the execution exception” is far more of a legend than a legal standard. On a personal note, my family on my father’s mother’s side had some rather “colorful” characters in the 1800s who didn’t exactly walk the straight and narrow path. One of my great, great uncles was allegedly hung three times. (He eventually died of old age because his brothers came and rescued him every time. I don’t know how much of that is a legend, but it’s been published in some local history books over the decades.)

Also, we have some case law to draw upon. A convicted rapist and murderer named Romell Broom underwent a botched execution in 2009 which he survived. His lawyers made essentially the same argument, invoking both cruel and unusual punishment and double jeopardy. In 2016, the Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

The underlying reason is that nobody is ever sentenced just to “be hung” or “be electrocuted” or “be injected” with lethal chemicals. The sentence always includes the caveat “until dead.” So if the attempt fails, you didn’t really complete the sentence. It’s certainly one of the more awful things imaginable, but it’s apparently constitutional.

That brings us back to the case of Benjamin Schreiber. He was sentenced to spend “the rest of his life” in prison with no chance for parole. And his medical episode didn’t wind up being the end of his life. It only put his life on hold for a minute or two while the doctors revived him. I don’t imagine this appeal is going to get very far, honestly.