A prisoner who briefly died argues that he’s served his life sentence

An Iowa inmate serving a life sentence says he should be free after he briefly died before being resuscitated. The courts disagree.

What does it mean to complete a sentence of life in prison? One prisoner claims he has done it by serving time until the moment of his death — plus another four years since — and said it is well past time to set him free.

The prisoner, Benjamin Schreiber, made that argument to an appeals court in Iowa, saying that when he briefly died in 2015, before being revived at a hospital, he completed his obligation to the state. He asked the three-judge panel to let him get on with his life.

The judges rejected his argument this week, ruling that a lower court had been right to dismiss his petition.

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“Schreiber is either still alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is actually dead, in which case this appeal is moot,” Judge Amanda Potterfield wrote for the court.

Schreiber, 66, was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of murder for killing a man with the handle of an ax in 1996, according to The Des Moines Register.

He has filed several unsuccessful appeals, but in 2018 he argued in court in Wapello County that he had been resuscitated against his will, and that because he had, his “sentence has expired.”

In March 2015, Schreiber, who is being held at the Iowa State Penitentiary, was taken to a hospital after having seizures and a high fever, according to his petition. The cause of his illness turned out to be large kidney stones, which led to septic poisoning.

When he lost consciousness at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, a staff member called his brother, who told the hospital that although it could give Schreiber medicine to ease his pain, “otherwise you are to let him pass,” according to Schreiber’s petition.

Schreiber said he was resuscitated despite his brother’s directions and his own do-not-resuscitate order on file with the Iowa Department of Corrections. The courts have not addressed whether he was wrongfully resuscitated. Schreiber’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

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Potterfield wrote in the ruling this week that because “life” is not defined by the state’s code, the judges had given the term “its plain meaning,” which they took to prescribe that Schreiber must spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated, regardless of whether he had been revived.

“We do not find his argument persuasive,” Potterfield wrote, adding that the judges found it unlikely the Legislature would have wanted “to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration led to their resuscitation by medical professionals.”

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