IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa House advances 'life means life' bill to make sure life sentences aren't cut short

Inmate Benjamin Schreiber argued he fulfilled prison term when he 'died' momentarily during heart attack

The House of Representatives chambers are seen Dec. 19 at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The House of Representatives chambers are seen Dec. 19 at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Whether you call it “life means life” or “dead means dead,” the Iowa Legislature doesn’t want to let anyone out of a life prison sentence just because they temporarily have “died.”

A three-member House Judiciary subcommittee signed off Thursday on Senate File 2093, making it eligible for consideration by the full committee. It already has been unanimously approved by the Senate.

SF 2093 would ensure that Iowa’s law requiring mandatory life sentences for Class A felony convictions doesn’t have any escape clause for inmates who may encounter medical problems.

The bill defines a life prison sentence “for purposes of a Class A felony” as pertaining to a defendant’s “natural life,” regardless of any life-sustaining procedures that may be used during his or her sentence.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, is a response to a situation that arose last year when an inmate convicted of murder and serving a life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary brought legal action. He argued his prison term was fulfilled and he should be released when he briefly “died” during a medical emergency and his heart was restarted five times at a hospital in 2015.

Benjamin Schreiber, 67, was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1997 in Wapello County and sentenced to life without parole. Although Schreiber had a “do not resuscitate” agreement, doctors took steps to save his life.

He claimed in a lawsuit that he should be released from prison because his life sentence was fulfilled when he momentarily had “died” at the hospital.

His legal argument was rejected at the district and appeal levels.

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The Iowa State Bar Association and County Attorneys Association both are registered as undecided on the bill. A lobbyist for the county attorneys said the group “leans toward supporting it.”

Subcommittee members weren’t sure why the law was necessary, in light of the court rulings.

“I’m comfortable getting it into code to stop future litigation,” said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota.

Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, called the situation “a little weird.” However, she added, there could be extensive implications if Schreiber had won his argument.

“Would you have to go back and marry your wife again? Could you get out of paying child support if you are a new person? If your former life ended?” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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