The Execution of an Innocent in Florida
In this instant media age even the most horrific tragedies and the lessons they teach us can quickly disappear. Some events, especially those that scream injustice and discrimination, deserve to never be forgotten. So, today, let's remember, for a moment, an innocent person sentenced death and executed in Florida eight years ago.
Teresa Marie Schindler Schiavo.
Terri was a vibrant 20-something girl who suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed at home on February 25, 1990. She suffered significant brain damage after going into full cardiac arrest. While her cognitive challenges were significant, Terri was not dying and required no extraordinary care such as a ventilator or other life-sustaining measures. She responded to stimuli and only needed help to eat and drink.
Initially, her husband agreed to rehabilitation therapy and there were clear signs early on that while Terri would never recover many of her cognitive functions, she was progressing along a path commonly taken by thousands of people with similar significant disabilities - people who lived differently than most of us, but who lived meaningful lives nevertheless.
After a few years, however, things changed. Terri's husband stopped her therapy and manufactured the canard that Terri had stated that she would want to die if she were ever in the condition in which she now found herself. He also, by that time, had found himself a live-in girlfriend.
Teri's loving family swung into action, legally petitioning Florida courts to allow them to bring Terri home so that they could care for her and provide the rehabilitation that she so richly deserved.
It didn't happen.
Years of legal wrangling followed until, unbelievably, the Florida Grim Reaper, circuit court judge George W. Greer, sentenced Terri to death. The sentence wasn't for a lethal injection or the electric chair, as are the choices for hardened killers on Florida's death row. Instead, Greer decreed that Terri should take a much longer and more painful path to her death - death by starvation and thirst.
Terri's ultimate suffering to her death lasted 13 days after her food and hydration were cut off. Without doubt, her unspeakable terminal suffering was much more brutal than a quick needle or a searing jolt of electricity.
At the end, Terri's bed was surrounded by burly Florida state troopers, their task to make sure that her loving family didn't break the law by offering a few drops of water to her cracked and bleeding lips, or to wipe the blood oozing from her eyes as her mouth contorted into a desiccated grimace.
This, you see, was justice. A high court in the great state of Florida, charged to impartially divine punishment and mercy, delivered the harshest punishment possible. The message was very, very clear: As a severely disabled woman, now in circumstances precipitated by nothing of her own doing other than a medical emergency, she should suffer state-imposed death.
And die she did - bereft of comfort, never understanding in her disabled state why she was being fatally hurt.
Terri died on March 31, 2005.
Many had tried to help, including a number of prominent disability and pro-life groups, governors, congressmen, and senators. All to no avail.
Sadly, it didn't take long for the brutality of the culture of death to prance on Terri's grave, gleefully chortling in their ghoulishly snide way about what a buffoon she was for being disabled and vulnerable.
In 2005, the Fox TV show the Family Guy dedicated serious broadcast time to "Terri Schiavo, the Musical." Singers chirped about "hating vegetables," and that Terri had "mashed potato brains." They didn't stop there - they went on to mockingly observe that Terri was the "most expensive plant you'll ever see."
Google Terri Schiavo and you'll find plenty of like-minded haters. For example, American comedian Karen Finley garnered a glowing review trumpeting that "Only Karen Finley Can Make Terri Schiavo Funny," and one "comedy" website has a string of Terri jokes including this one: "Why was the broccoli sad to see Terri Schiavo die? Because it had to go back to being the world's smelliest vegetable."
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss such evil as the rawness of the current culture, but let's also remember that even the occupier of the highest office in the land joined the chorus denigrating Terri.
Here's what President Obama had to say in a presidential candidate debate about his time in the US Senate:
When I first arrived in the Senate that first year, we had a situation surrounding Terri Schiavo, and I remember how we adjourned with a unanimous agreement that eventually allowed Congress to interject itself into that decision-making process of the families. It wasn't something I was comfortable with, but it was not something that I stood on the floor and stopped. And I think that was a mistake, and I think the American people understood that that was a mistake. And as a constitutional law professor, I knew better.
That's all you need to know. Standing up for a severely disabled and vulnerable woman was a mistake.
At the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network we don't think it's a mistake to stand up for people with severe cognitive impairments and we certainly don't think they should be sentenced to death. We work to give voice to those who cannot speak and to their loving families who turn to us for help and support every day.
We're moving forward, forging a new movement that values those who are cognitively different, cherishes those who are our brain damaged brothers and sisters, and one that stands in solidarity with the tens of thousands of Teri Schiavos across the United States and the world beyond.
We'll remember Terri at a mass at Philadelphia's Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Friday, April 5th and go on to a gala dinner to be encouraged in our fight by Sarah Palin.
Terri, you will not be forgotten no matter what judges, politicians, or even presidents, for that matter, might say.
Mark P. Mostert, PhD, is Director of the Center for Disability in the Public Square at the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, Philadelphia, PA. firstname.lastname@example.org