When Does a Life Sentence Really End?

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This Weeks Wacky Wednesday When Does a Life Sentence Really End

If someone is doing a life sentence in prison, how long does that sentence actually last? While this might sound like a riddle or a setup for a joke, it’s a very real question. Not only do you have to think about things like the possibility of parole, even for a life sentence, that could be granted, but you also have to think about death. When someone dies, it seems quite logical that their life sentence would end as soon as their life ended. Most of the time, that might be true. However, as with so many things in life and law, that are always some weird outlying cases.

Benjamin Schreiber is a prime example. In 2015, he collapsed in his prison cell, where he was doing a life sentence for murder. During his medical emergency, doctors had to restart his heart five different times, and he had technically died before he was brought back to life. During his recovery, realizing that he had died, he had an interesting idea. Since he had been sentenced to life in prison, and he had died, wouldn’t that mean he should be getting out? He believed that he had fulfilled his sentence and that he should walk free.

How Did It All Lead to This?

Schreiber was in prison for the 1996 murder of a man named John Dale Terry. Terry’s body was found bludgeoned to death in a trailer near the town of Agency, Iowa. The police arrested Schreiber. Prosecutors believed that he and Terry’s girlfriend plotted the murder, which was carried out by Schreiber with the handle of a pickaxe. In 1997, he was found guilty by a jury and was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Fast forward to 2015, and Schreiber developed kidney stones that were bad enough that he was urinating internally, which caused septic poisoning. This was what caused him to collapse in his cell and need to be taken to the hospital. It was only with the use of epinephrine that he was brought back to life.

The inmate filed to be let out of prison in 2018. He even said that he was being held in prison illegally since he had died and therefore his sentence should have been considered served. He argued that when his heart stopped beating, his sentence should have ended.

What Did the Courts Think?

Of course, as you can imagine, the courts did not agree. They did not believe that they should let a convicted murderer back onto the streets simply because he was attempting to find a loophole that would allow him to get out. The district court judge said that the fact that Schreiber was the one who filed the legal motion asking for release was confirmation that the inmate was still, in fact, alive. If he is alive, he then has to carry out his full sentence.

Schreiber was not happy with this result, naturally. He took his case to the Iowa Court of Appeals, but they came to the same conclusion. They were not able to find any case law that backed Schreiber, and they said that a person couldn’t be dead and alive at the same time. If Schreiber was dead, he would not be able to request to be let out of prison, and if he were alive – as was the case – he needed to continue serving out his prison sentence.

Interestingly, Schreiber also said that his doctors did not follow the do not resuscitate orders when they brought him back to life. The courts are still considering how to rule on that aspect. It is not known if Schreiber will try to take his case to a higher court or not.