Life sentence seems to be clearly defined by the laws. In simple words, it is a sentence of imprisonment under which a person who is convicted, usually for very serious crimes, stays in prison for the rest of his/her life. It is not really rocket science. Nevertheless, one prisoner, who has been behind the bars for years, came up with an ingenious argument which could potentially set him free.
Any kind of prison sentence can be given with or without a possibility of parole which is a conditional freedom for a prisoner (also known as a parolee), but under strict rules, of which the most important one is to stay out of trouble. According to the Infographic Show, not all prisoners, especially those convicted of a first-degree murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or drug trafficking, are eligible for a parole. A decision whether a parolee will be released back into a community or remain behind bars is in the hands of a special committee, called the Parole board. It is made based on numerous factors, such as age, mental stability, prior criminal record, amount of time already spent in prison, behaviour and prediction if the person may be dangerous to a community or will become a contributing member of society. Therefore, parole is not a right, but something that needs to be well-earned.
One of Iowa State Penitentiary’s inmates, a 66-year-old Benjamin Schreiber, got convicted of murdering a man with a handle of an axe in 1996, and was sentenced to life without parole, according to The Des Moines Register.
As The New York Times reported, in March 2015, he was taken to a hospital because he had high fever and lost consciousness, which was a result of a septic poisoning, and later he also got a seizure. Although receiving different orders from his brother and despite he signed a “do not resuscitate” agreement a few years before, the doctors revived him.
He was later taken back to prison, but, unexpectedly, decided to file several legal appeals. He was claiming that because he briefly died before he was resuscitated, his life sentence has technically ended, as The Washington Post reported. One of his arguments was also that he was revived against his will.
The Iowa Court of Appeals has considered his appeal but wasn’t persuaded by his arguments and therefore rejected his request to set him free. The judges wrote for the court that he is clearly still alive, since he was able to file a legal motion petitioning for his release. This is also a reason why he will remain incarcerated until a medical professional officially determines he is dead for good, according to The Washington post.
Eve Brensike Primus, a criminal law professor from the University of Michigan Law School, was interviewed by The New York Times. She believes that if people could officially be considered dead before revival, it would create numerous problems, and I completely agree with her. First of all, it would lead to a lot of confusion in cases like Mr. Schreiber’s, because the prisoners would be dead for a criminal justice system, but perfectly alive on the other hand, and freely walking around as if nothing has happened – I imagine it would feel like our reality has just turned into the American TV series, The Walking Dead. Joking aside, allowing that would create so many complications in the law system, also as far as releasing potentially dangerous prisoners is concerned. Not only that, it would put insurance companies into trouble as well, because they would have to pay (maybe even more than once) compensation to families for “the death” of their family member, in case of having a life insurance. Problems would also appear when considering inheritance claims – if the person is actually still alive, what is he/she going to live with if all his/her possessions will be divided among other people?
As we have seen, the terms, such as “life” and “death” are sometimes not defined thoroughly enough, so some might try to seek for a loophole in the law. This story also shows what a huge responsibility judges have, especially let’s say in the USA or England, where they follow common law which is a legal system in which judges’ decisions in one case also serve as a legal precedent for next similar cases, so when the court declares something, it is like making a law.
At the end of the day, smart ideas sometimes outsmart the system, and other times they help it learn and evolve.