DES MOINES — A state senator wants to make sure Iowa’s law requiring mandatory life prison sentences for Class A felony convictions doesn’t have any escape clause for inmates who may encounter future medical problems.
Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, has offered legislation defining 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.
Senate File 2007, Smith said, is in 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, arguing his prison term was fulfilled when he briefly died during a medical emergency and his heart was restarted five times at a hospital in 2015.
Benjamin Schreiber — a man who was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1997 in Wapello County and sentenced to life without parole — was hospitalized in March 2015 after large kidney stones caused him to develop septic poisoning, according to court records.
Although Schreiber had signed a “do not resuscitate” agreement, doctors took steps to save his life by administering resuscitation fluids through an IV after he arrived unconscious at a hospital. He underwent surgery to fix the damage done by the kidney stones.
He claimed in the lawsuit he should be released from prison because his life sentence was fulfilled because he momentarily had died at the hospital.
His legal argument was rejected at the district and appeal levels.
But Smith said Wednesday the case points up a potential — albeit unusual — loophole in Iowa law that he would like to see addressed.
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“It was fascinating that someone would think that they could get out of their life sentence for what happened,” said Smith, who applauded Iowa courts for “ruling the correct way.”
“But now,” he added, “I want to just be crystal clear and put it in code.
“Any common-sense person out there would say no matter if you’re resuscitated or not, you should have to finish your life sentence on this. And so we’re just going to go in and make it crystal clear on that,” Smith said. “You don’t know 10, 20, 100 years from now what might be out there medically, so let’s just go in here and make sure that it’s done correctly.”
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wanted time to study the issue but added “I’m certainly open-minded to have a conversation” with committee members about the issue.
“My initial reaction is that a life sentence is a life sentence, regardless if you’re in the hospital or whatever happens,” Zaun noted. “I will definitely take a serious look at that.”
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