Road to a Kill
The Judge Who Didn’t Pay Attention to Terri Schiavo’s Witnesses
by Lydia McGrew
Four years after Terri Schiavo was killed by dehydration over thirteen days, dying on March 31, 2005, the transcripts of witness testimony from her trial in 2000 have finally become available online. And what the transcripts reveal—in full detail and in a form everyone can read—is a shocking tale of bias and sheer incompetence on the part of Judge George Greer.
Greer’s written opinion from the trial has been available online for years, ever since Terri’s case became a cause célèbre. But it has been impossible to evaluate his reasoning without access to the testimony on which he based his decision. Greer concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Terri would have wanted her food and water discontinued, but he cited his evidence only allusively. Beyond the lawyers connected with the case, almost no one has been able to check his statements against the testimony itself—until now.
And the transcripts amply show that it would be an understatement to say that Greer’s conclusion was not supported by the evidence. The testimony describing conversations in which Terri supposedly affirmed that she would have wanted a feeding tube withdrawn is, at most, only indirectly relevant to that crucial question. The witnesses who, according to Greer, gave “clear and convincing evidence” of her wish to be dehydrated to death testified instead to statements that made no reference to tube feeding.
Vague Machine Talk
Consider Scott Schiavo, Terri’s brother-in-law. Scott testified that Terri sat next to him at a luncheon following his grandmother’s funeral, at which he and the other relatives were talking disapprovingly of the grandmother’s care in her last days. Terri had supposedly said, “If I ever go like that, just let me go. Don’t leave me there. I don’t want to be kept alive on a machine.” Scott’s testimony made it obvious that the “machine” in question was a ventilator:
But Terri herself had nothing more than a feeding tube; she was not being kept alive on a machine.
Or consider Joan Schiavo, Terri’s sister-in-law (married to a third Schiavo brother). Here is the crucial portion of her testimony:
The plural pronoun “we” is so noticeable in this bit of testimony, the absence of any clearly remembered, specific statement by Terri herself so
striking, and the details of the situation of the man in the movie so obscure, that George Felos, the attorney pressing for Terri’s dehydration, felt it necessary to try for something a little more satisfactory:
Yet somehow, from this vague and unreliable testimony, Greer managed to discern a clear statement of intent from Terri that she would want to have a feeding tube removed and to die by dehydration. In his summary, he cited Terri’s “statement” that “she wanted it stated in her will that she would want the tubes and everything taken out,” in such a way as to give the impression that Terri had talked specifically about tube feeding.
Mistiming a Conversation
Greer’s representation of Diane Meyer’s testimony is even more confused and distorted than his representation of the Schiavos’ testimony. Meyer was a witness on the Schindlers’ side of the case. She testified that Terri had spoken passionately years before about the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, opposing Karen’s parents’ position. In 1976, Karen’s parents obtained court permission to have their daughter removed from a ventilator. To the surprise of many, Karen proved able to breathe on her own, and she lived for nine more years, receiving tube feeding.
The Schiavos’ picture of a Terri who would rather die by dehydration than live with a feeding tube stands in striking contrast to Meyer’s picture of a Terri who bitterly resented on Karen Ann Quinlan’s behalf the presumptuous determination that Karen would have wished to die. And if Terri disagreed with what Quinlan’s parents did, when Quinlan continued to receive food and water, it is plausible that she would have disagreed even more strongly with the more radical decision in her own case.
But while Greer had written of both Scott and Joan Schiavo’s testimony that “the court . . . finds nothing therein to be unreliable,” he dismissed Meyer’s testimony altogether. One of his major arguments for doing so stemmed from his false belief that Quinlan had died in 1976, when her ventilator was removed. Here is his oddly unclear description of Diane Meyer’s testimony:
Greer had already concluded that Terri’s comments to Mrs. Schindler about the Quinlan case must have occurred when that case was in the news, in 1975–1976. Indeed, Mrs. Schindler had left this possibility open by testifying spontaneously that the conversation she remembered was prompted by news stories about Quinlan on television.
But the similar conclusion regarding Diane Meyer was far more dubious. Here, the transcripts themselves are particularly helpful, since Greer tells almost nothing about what Meyer actually said or about those famous present-tense verbs.
Where “Is” Came From
The verb “is” arose in a joke that Meyer said she told Terri:
Even had Quinlan been dead, the joke still could have been told several years later, and still with the verb “is.” But since Quinlan was still alive in 1982—a fact that Greer obviously did not know when he wrote his opinion—his objection has no point at all.
Moreover, Greer does not account for Meyer’s mention of the gift of the car and the occurrence of the conversation in the car, though it is an important point. One often does remember a conversation by visualizing where it took place, and obviously Diane was not driving around in her own car with Terri in 1975, when the girls were only eleven or twelve. This is a convincing detail, yet Greer brushes it off, and we would not know about it at all were it not for the witness transcripts.
Where “Are” Came From
The transcript record regarding the verb “are” is even more telling. Here Greer makes an outright error regarding the witness testimony. He claims that both verbs in Meyer’s testimony “are in the present tense, and upon cross-examination the witness did not alter them.” This implies that Meyer used the word “are” spontaneously in her initial statement about her conversation with Terri in a way that implied that the conversation took place in 1975–1976, and that she retained this word under cross-examination by Felos.
But in her initial testimony, Meyer merely said that Terri “did not approve of what was going on or what happened in the Karen Ann Quinlan case.” The word “are” does not appear, and the testimony could easily describe a conversation that took place in 1982.
The supposedly telling use of “are” first comes from the mouth of Felos, who is the questioner in the dialogue below. He asks a leading question and prompts Meyer to repeat the relevant phrase. Meyer takes that bait and repeats the phrase, but she resolutely refuses to be bullied into admitting that therefore the conversation must have taken place while she and Terri were children:
In other words, Meyer says that she remembers that Terri was opposed to the Quinlans’ attitude and actions in the case, to their approach to it, not that she specifically remembered Terri saying, “I disapprove of what Karen Ann Quinlan’s parents are doing.”
If this all seems like legal pettifogging, we should remember that Greer treated it as proven that the conversation took place when Terri was a child. “There are some comments . . .” said Greer, “made by Terri Schiavo which the court does not feel are germane to this decision. The court does not feel that statements made by her at the age of 11 or 12 years old truly reflect upon her intention regarding the situation at hand.”
Petty Bureaucrat of Death
None of this sifting of the witnesses’ evidence is meant to imply that it is ever legitimate to kill a patient as Terri Schiavo was killed. A patient who wants to go without food and water until he dies of dehydration is a patient who wants ordinary care (not medical treatment) withdrawn. Such a wish is suicidal and not morally binding upon caregivers.
But the agents of the culture of death have chosen to take their stand upon choice, upon one’s right to control one’s own life. And as St. Paul judges the Jews by the Torah and the Gentiles by the law written on the heart, so too, we may see how the secularist lives up to his own claimed standard of choice.
Upon investigation, we find that for those who, like Terri, live lives deemed unworthy of life, the rhetoric of choice is a sham. The law sets up what look like safeguards for choice, ostensibly designed to make sure that the choice made is the patient’s own. But since the law has become an instrument for killing the weak rather than protecting them, these safeguards are the flimsiest of paper barriers, and the entire legal system operates to make sure they pose no real obstacle.
If there is one overarching impression one carries away from reading Judge Greer’s opinion and comparing it with the transcripts, it is an impression of shoddiness. Greer knew the verbal forms of law but was unable or unwilling actually to apply careful standards of evidence—especially when doing so would get in the way of the conclusion to which his bias led him.
Some have portrayed Greer as a conscientious judge merely applying a law he did not make. Others have implied that he was engaged in an explicit, behind-the-scenes conspiracy against Terri. But the picture that emerges from the legal record is different from either of these. Greer was neither as intelligent nor as good at his job as he thought himself. He was sloppy, heavily biased against Terri’s life, and, in the years of litigation that followed his initial 2000 decision, stubbornly unwilling to reconsider that decision or to permit any challenge within his small arena of power.
He was, in other words, one of the petty bureaucrats of death. May God preserve us all from falling into such merciless hands. •
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“Road to a Kill” first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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