SOUND: NEW YORK CITY
ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, CO-HOST: It’s business as usual in America’s largest city. Skyscrapers overshadow teeming sidewalks. Yellow taxis zip by. Neon headlines crawl across billboards.
Top story: The death of a brain-injured woman in Florida. Camera crews prowl the New York City streets, stopping passersby for reactions.
BYSTANDER 1: She died? Yeah. Whoa, that they should have put the feeding tube in her. So she could live like a human being like you would be supposed to.
BYSTANDER 2:…I’m so glad I think that they should have left her alone a long time ago…
News of Terri Schiavo’s death is breaking in other cities, too.
BYSTANDER 3: Robert Overhand West Los Angeles. I think the politics and the religious establishment just made hay out of it, thought it was in bad taste out of proportion.
BYSTANDER 4: My name is Linda Lupo and I live in Merridale. Here, I don't think anyone has the right to pull the plug on someone. I really don't. You will never give up hope.
An ocean away, the Vatican’s Cardinal Martino calls Terri’s death an execution.
MARTINO: Stopping, denying the nutrition has been converted in a death sentence. And just that sentence of a unarmed and defenseless person.
And from the White House briefing room…President George Bush addresses the nation.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life. Where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others. The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. Cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life.
From WORLD Radio, and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It: This is Lawless. I’m WORLD Radio features editor, Anna Johansen Brown.
LYNN VINCENT, COHOST: And I’m New York Times bestselling author and WORLD Magazine executive editor Lynn Vincent. Lawless is a true crime podcast that examines a frightening fact of American life: That not every crime is against the law. In Season 2, we’re back to finish our investigation of the Terri Schiavo story.
ANNA: This is our last episode of Season 2. Episode 7 – Their Own Little Gods.
SPONSORSHIP SPOT: Lawless is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from Compelled Podcast. Listen to unique and compelling testimonies like Gracia Burnham, a missionary to the Philippines who was kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and held hostage for over a year, yet who chose to forgive her captors. Listen on your favorite podcast app or at CompelledPodcast.com.
LYNN: That same morning…Attorney George Felos breaks the news of Terri’s death to the crowd of reporters and protestors massed outside Florida Hospice of the Suncoast.
FELOS: My condolences to the entire Schiavo and Schindler family and all those in the country and around the world who are grieving Terri’s loss.
Father Frank Pavone also holds a press conference that day. But he takes a bit of a different tone.
PAVONE: When I came out after she died, that’s when I said, “Terri didn’t die this morning, she was killed.” And I said… “And Michael Schiavo and George Felos, they are murderers.” And and there was a gasp on the part of the reporters, “Murderers?” And, and at that point, that the press conference ended and I think even my own staff was afraid of what I was gonna say next.
Meanwhile, the Schindlers take refuge with extended family members at home. They’re exhausted, but also feel the need to speak. To thank their supporters. And to honor Terri’s fight for life. They book a press conference of their own for 4 o’ clock.
David Gibbs helps them prepare a statement. When the time comes, three Schindlers pile into cars for the all-too-familiar trek to the hospice. Mary stays behind. She can’t yet bear to face the world with her grief.
Outside the hospice, Bob, Bobby, and Suzanne encounter a sea of microphones and cameras. More than ever before. For Suzanne, the moment has an out-of-body quality. As she steps forward to speak, she feels like an actor playing a part.
SUZANNE: Terri is now with God, and she has been released from all earthly burdens. After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and care for her, she is finally at peace with God for eternity.
Bobby addresses his words directly to Terri.
BOBBY: As a member of our family, unable to speak for yourself, you spoke loudly. Terri, we love you dearly. But we know that God loves you more than we do. We must accept your untimely death as God's will. Our prayer at this time is that our nation will remember the plight of persons with disabilities and commit within our hearts to defend their lives and their dignity for many generations to come.
Afterwards, people approach the siblings to say how moved they were by their words. But Suzanne just feels numb.
ANNA: Then, just like that, the storm of media attention blows over. The never-ending news cycle grinds on. Reporters pack up and head out to the next big story. Public attention shifts to the Vatican, where an ailing Pope John Paul II has just received a feeding tube himself.
GIBBS: Most of them flew to Rome, where the Pope was dying. That became the new story.
When Bobby hears about the pope’s condition, it brings him to the verge of tears. He’s wrestled a lot with his Catholic faith throughout Terri’s ordeal, but now, he feels like this is a clear sign from God. An “acknowledgement of Terri’s worth…and suffering.”
BOBBY: I don’t think you can ignore that, and I think God was making making a tremendous statement on how we need to treat you know, people like Terri.
LYNN: The day after Terri dies, Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin performs an autopsy on her body. Thogmartin is Pinellas County’s chief medical examiner. More than two months later, on June 13th, he releases his report.
CARRIE: The next big question in the Terri Schiavo story is whether or not the autopsy results resolved the central issue which is just how brain damaged was she?
Thogmartin’s report is nothing if not thorough. He collaborates with a team of other medical specialists, including neuropathologist Dr. Stephen J. Nelson.
Together, they take seventy-two external photographs and one-hundred-sixteen internal photographs of Terri’s body. Dissect her neck, spine, and brain. Run toxicology tests. And pore over Terri’s court and medical records—including confidential reports by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Thogmartin tackles the issues one-by-one…starting with the question haunting the whole case: what really happened to Terri Schiavo that night in 1990?
ANNA: In 1992, Michael won a medical malpractice suit on Terri’s behalf. He said Terri had a secret case of bulimia that triggered her collapse. Now, though, Thogmartin dismantles that theory.
He points out no one ever saw Terri binging, purging, or taking laxatives. The whole case centered on her low potassium levels at the time she was admitted to the ER the night of her injury.
After her collapse, Terri spent over an hour at the brink of death—her heart beating an irregular, deadly rhythm called “ventricular fibrillation.” Paramedics flooded her system with more than a liter of extra fluids and chemicals—dextrose, dopamine, lidocaine, Narcan, and epinephrine—trying to jumpstart her heart.
Those substances are linked to drops in blood electrolytes—like potassium. Thogmartin says the epinephrine dosage alone is enough to account for Terri’s low potassium. And her potassium level was the main building block of Terri’s 1990 bulimia diagnosis. Now Thogmartin calls the diagnosis “suspect at best.”
LYNN: Thogmartin also rules out a heart attack and traumatic injury as likely causes. He sees no evidence for strangulation, either—at least, no signs of injury show up on Terri’s original scans from the ER and ICU.
He assesses a number of other theories…drugs, caffeine, heart anomalies. But there’s no evidence for any of those, either.
Finally, Thogmartin is forced to admit he doesn’t know what happened to Terri. He writes, “Mrs. Schiavo suffered a severe anoxic brain injury, the cause of which cannot be determined with reasonable medical certainty.”
ANNA: Thogmartin also assesses the state of Terri’s brain. It’s half the weight it should be. Here’s CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta…
GUPTA: They talked about Karen Quinlan, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for about 10 years, and her her brain’s weight was about 800 grams. They talked about her versus Terri’s, which was about 600 grams.
That gets splashed all over the news. Headlines proclaim Terri was in PVS and that Michael Schiavo was right all along. But some critical distinctions are lost in all the noise. Here’s Dr. Gupta again.
GUPTA: Persistent vegetative state is a clinical diagnosis. It’s only a diagnosis that can be made when somebody is alive. You’re getting a static picture in time when you’re doing an autopsy.
Thogmartin says as much in his report, and in a conversation with David Gibbs later on.
GIBBS: And he said, “No question. You can’t prove PVS on a corpse.” He said, “All I can look at is the dead body.”
The same is true of MCS—the minimally conscious state. There’s no way to diagnose it from a dead body. Yet it’s Thogmartin’s assessment of Terri’s brain that, more than anything else, convinces even some who had supported the Schindlers that perhaps they had been on the wrong side.
LYNN: But that’s emblematic of the “received version” of the Terri Schiavo story, the narrative that’s taken root on the internet—and now on most podcasts—that repeats assessments of Terri’s condition uncritically.
HOSTS: And so this essentially vindicates everything that Michael Schiavo has been arguing in court for 15 years … It’s confirmed on what almost every doctor said in this story that she’s in a persistent vegetative state, she would not have had any voluntary function, her brain was half the weight of a normal brain of a woman her size … And people have woken up out of comas, but persistent vegetative state. I think it’s like, you’re pretty far gone.
Terri’s responses to her family are well-documented, including by Michael. But they were by nature subject to interpretation. Still, two aspects of Terri’s behavior are not subjective—and both are corroborated by multiple witnesses. Terri could talk and she could feel pain.
In testimony to that 1992 malpractice jury, Michael said—and these are his exact words— “She does feel pain.” Numerous healthcare providers throughout the 1990s also noted Terri’s pain during her menstrual cycle, and gave her pain medication such as ibuprofen—all documented.
Terri’s medical records also show she responded verbally to pain. Remember, in 2002, nurse Eleanor Drechsel, who was volunteering with Pat Anderson, discovered some of Terri’s buried medical records. Those records noted Terri saying, “No” and “stop” in response to painful rehab. This was shortly after she was diagnosed as being in PVS. Both pain and speaking should have ruled out a PVS diagnosis.
As disturbing is the procession of people who both witnessed Terri’s awareness and heard her speak. Nurses, like Carla Sauer-Iyer, in the mid-90’s:
SAUER-IYER: She would say “mommy” all the time. And then she would say the word “pain” which came out like “pay.”
Then, in the early 2000’s, Tom Broderson:
BRODERSEN: She whispered the word “no,” as clearly as you or I could.
And in March 2005, the day her feeding tube was removed:
CB TAMMARO: Her head went up, and she goes, “I wanna live…’, just like that.
In fact, if you look across the 15-year record, a pattern emerges: Terri consistently interacting with friends and family while shutting down in the presence of strangers. Across the written record and according to eyewitnesses, Terri Schiavo was aware.
But at the end of the day, attorney and bioethicist Wesley J. Smith says Terri’s level of awareness doesn’t actually have any bearing on the moral argument.
WESLEY SMITH: But because the the rush and I think the biased way that the autopsy was reported people, it was almost like well, the Schindlers were saying, “Terri’s going to get up and tap dance and be able to go back to college and get a degree,” which is not what they were saying. And in terms of whether she could have improved or not, the Schindlers believed—and I’m with them 100% —it didn’t matter. She was human, it didn’t matter whether she would be able to be improved or not improved. They wanted to love her and care for her for the rest of her life.
Father Frank Pavone also had something to say about that…
PAVONE: Her condition was hopelessly irreversible, so they said. Well then, if that’s the medical judgment, let it be. Oh, her brain was profoundly atrophied, so be it. But she did not die of atrophy of her brain, she died of an atrophy of compassion.
ANNA: On June 20, 2005, Michael lays Terri’s ashes to rest in a quiet cemetery overhung with Spanish moss. He had planned to bury her in the Schiavo family plot near Philadelphia. But once reporters caught wind of that, they staked out the graveyard with TV helicopters.
So, Michael picks a spot closer to home—in Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater. He chooses a site overlooking a small pond and orders a polished stone bench marked “Schiavo.”
It’s the same cemetery where Season 1 of Lawless began. Back in a thunderstorm in August 2021.
LYNN: Teresa Marie. beloved wife born December third 1963 departed this earth. February 25 1990. At peace March 31 2005. And then under a dove carrying an olive branch. I kept my promise.
The Schindlers don’t attend Terri’s burial ceremony. They’re not invited.
BOBBY: I think he actually put in a press release. And so that’s how we learned about it…
The inscription, saying Terri “departed this earth” back in February 1990 feels like a slap in the face.
BOBBY: …My father and I were upset at the time. In fact, my dad, I don’t think my dad visited this grave, and he passed away without visiting. And I only visited for the first time a few years ago.
So, none of the Schindlers are there as Michael buries Terri’s ashes in the middle of a downpour. Thunder rolls and lightning splits the sky. A priest named Father Tony conducts the service under a tent.
Michael would later claim that he added several of Terri’s stuffed animals to the urn…along with her wedding ring. That’s strange. Because in his 1993 deposition with attorney Jim Sheehan, Michael testified that he melted down Terri’s wedding band…and turned it into a ring for himself.
LYNN: The Schindlers hold a memorial service of their own for Terri.
SINGING: Alleluia, sing to Jesus…
More than 800 people gather at the Most-Holy-Name-of-Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport. They fill the sanctuary and spill out into the courtyard. The Schindlers’ spiritual advisor, Monsignor Malanowski presides.
MALANOWSKI: May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life. Let us pray. [singing] Lord, hear our prayers.
Father Pavone gives the homily.
PAVONE: There is for the Christian, joyful sorrow, there is for the Christian, hopeful grief. And that is what we experience here today. Why do we weep? We weep because we love. Why at the same time, do we hope? We hope, because we know that death does not have the last word.
Mary feels a sense of peace over the whole gathering. As she listens, she feels close to Terri again.
PAVONE: Terri you do not belong to death, you belong to Christ and so do we. Amen.
ANNA: In the following days, the Schindlers wrestle with their grief…Struggling to find meaning in their loss and Terri’s suffering.
MARY: I think that God wanted to wake up this country and said, Hey, There's euthanasia out there, you know, and it's rearing its ugly head. And I need somebody to help me. And I think he picked Terri because she, her feeding tube was stopped three times. And the first time nobody really knew about it the second time, it was getting a little bit more, you know, coverage then the third time, I mean the whole world knew about Terri.
The Schindlers decide they can’t go back to how things were before.
BOB: Within a few weeks after Terri’s passing, when we kind of looked at one another and said now what? we just literally, we’ve lost this horrible battle. And every one of us said, Well, we can make, we’ll do everything we can to make sure that never happens. Again, it can never happen again with anyone and that's what we’ve dedicated our lives to.
The Schindlers reimagine their 2001 foundation. They want to create an organization that will help other families with loved ones in Terri’s shoes. They set up headquarters for the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation in St. Petersburg.
The back room looks just like any other office. Desks. Files. Computers. A coffee maker. But the front room is different. Mary says it’s a sort-of shrine to Terri. It’s adorned with photos, newspaper clippings, drawings. Defender of Life Awards. A picture of Mother Theresa.
Mary loves that room. She feels close to Terri there, too.
LYNN: Mary spends time in the office every day. Answering calls and emails. Offering “practical and spiritual help.”
MARY: We can help people that they email us or they’ll call us, and they don’t know what to do about their loved ones. Some are in the condition that Terri was someone just you know, handicapped and they need help. They need a voice to speak for them. The handicapped and the disabled need a voice to speak for them and they don't have a voice to speak.
Michael pushes back. He demands that the Schindlers remove Terri’s name from the name of the foundation. If they don’t, he says, he’ll sue.
BOBBY:…and we responded and basically said go ahead. And that was essentially the response we gave him and we never heard from him again.
One year after Terri’s death…Michael and the Schindlers both release memoirs about the Schiavo case. But, for the most part…they’re trying to move on. Here’s an interview with Michael Schiavo on Fox News.
COLMES: Have you had any contact or desire any contact with a Schindler’s family with a Schindler family?
MICHAEL: No, I have no desire, no desire.
COLMES: Which there’s nothing you’d want to say to them?
MICHAEL: No, I have nothing to say to them.
Bob Schindler is fine with that.
BOB: My feeling was that the only connection we had with Michael Schiavo was Terri. And once we lost Terri, Michael Schiavo went out of my life. And whatever he wants to do with himself, it really doesn't make any difference to me. And I’m very serious about that.
ANNA: But Mike Tammaro says Bob Schindler was never the same after Terri’s death. His health was already failing at the height of Terri’s crisis…Now, Mike and C.B. say the fight has gone out of him.
CB TAMARRO: Mike and I felt as if after Terri died, that up until that point, Bob had been he had a purpose. He was driven. And after Terri died, it was just like he gave up … He didn’t have the the fight and the and then his health you know, became an issue and then I think we feel like it was just all part of it.
He misses Terri—the playful banter they’d enjoyed throughout Terri’s life.
MARY: And she moved into her apartment with Michael with only a little bit away away from us. And it was her first Christmas and she called up her dad and she told her dad that she was going to go get a Christmas tree. And he says, “That’s good, when you get done,” he said, “Call up and tell me what you got, what kind it was.” He told her to get a balsam. So she called him up that night. And she was crying on the phone.
Terri had gotten the Christmas tree home, but when she went to put it up, the trunk was crooked. Never fear, though: her dad had a solution.
MARY: So he said, Look, he says do this. He says, take it back, they have tree trunk straighteners. And he said, if you take that back and they’ll straighten your trunk out for you. Oh my God she was so excited. She was so excited. She did. She took it back. And she got there. And when she found out that they don’t do that. She was she was mad but then she started laughing when, you know, she called him on the phone. But they did give her a new one.
But of all the memories…Bob says the most vivid ones are from Terri’s agonizing final days.
BOB: I was in there every day, cause I watched her deteriorate and there was nothing I could do about it. And that just tears my guts out.
Of all the Schindlers, Bob came under fire most in the media.
BOBBY: This is where Chris Matthews said that my dad looked like he was enjoying himself because my dad was greeting the supporters and thanking them. And Chris Matthews took that as he was enjoying all the attention. What a creep.
After Terri’s death, Bob’s health went downhill quickly.
BOBBY: And he told me that he was never able to forgive himself for not being able to do more as a father to stop this from happening to his daughter.
Bob died on August 29, 2009. He was 71.
LYNN: What did he ultimately die of?
MARY: I don’t, Oh Bob? His heart.
LYNN: Heart failure. A broken heart?
MARY: Probably. Probably.
ANNA: David Gibbs gave the eulogy at Bob’s funeral.
GIBBS: Bob Schindler to me was a real dad and be somebody that you know, I hope someday somebody says David Gibbs stood and fought for his kids like Bob Schindler did for his.
LYNN: Politicians made a lot of grand gestures during Terri’s final days. But after her death, legislators lost any sense of urgency on euthanasia and end-of-life care.
And politicians who once stood with the Schindlers began to backpedal. During a televised presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama said his “yea” vote for the federal version of Terri’s Law was the biggest regret of his career.
OBAMA: It wasn’t something I was comfortable with. But it was not something that I stood on the floor and stopped. And I think that was a mistake. And I think the American people understood that that was a mistake.
But many people went straight to mockery. As the five-year anniversary of Terri’s death approached, the animated sitcom “Family Guy” aired an episode featuring “Terri Schiavo: The Musical.”
FAMILY GUY: Terri Schiavo, is kind of alivo. What a lively little bugger. Maybe we should just unplug her…
When Mary sees the satire on her office computer, it reduces her to tears.
ANNA: George Felos had always made a careful distinction in his arguments. He never used the term euthanasia. He framed Terri’s case as all about autonomy and the right to refuse life-prolonging treatment.
FELOS: I’ve been extremely careful and the courts in adjudicating cases to withdraw medical treatment are very careful to make the distinction of an act of medical choice, which may let nature take its course.
But that slope proved as slippery as some Schindler allies had warned. Active euthanasia is killing a patient directly through a lethal injection, or some other means. It’s still banned in the U.S.
But physician-assisted suicide is a slightly different thing. That’s when a doctor prescribes a lethal drug, and the patient voluntarily takes it. And both are gaining traction, in the U.S. and around the world.
At the time of Terri’s death, only Oregon allowed doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients…and then only with a terminal diagnosis. But, since 2009, another ten states have legalized that kind of prescription. So have Austria and Italy. And Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since the 1940s.
Active euthanasia is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Spain, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.
LYNN: Lobbyists push for these measures, using words like “compassion,” “choice,” “wise demise” and “death with dignity.”
There are safeguards. But, these are eroding over time. Canada passed its medical aid in dying bill in 2016. It applied to people with a serious condition, disease, or disability who were enduring “unbearable physical or mental suffering” that could not be relieved. Their death also had to be “reasonably foreseeable.”
But, later, the government revised the law to include people suffering solely from mental illnesses. The changes go into effect in 2024. Here’s Bobby.
BOBBY: That’s what’s happening in our, in our nation today that we are convincing people that based on someone’s suffering, is a reason to kill somebody. And then we saw in Terri’s case, we saw the propaganda that was occurring and Terri’s case all under kind of this discussion on quality of life, that we should be able to decide based on someone’s quality of life who lives or dies. And, and where does it end?
Public attitudes are slowly shifting. Last year, a Statista poll of American views on assisted suicide found that 55% believe it’s a morally acceptable practice. That’s up from 49% in 2005. Here’s Wesley Smith.
WESLEY SMITH: You’re surrounded by a forces that are really powerful, that are really seeking to push the most marginal and vulnerable among us out of the lifeboat…
Nurse Eleanor Drechsel believes it’s all a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem.
ELEANOR: There are a lot of people who have lost sight of true God. And they think what they’re doing is godly, because they are the gods, they are their own little gods.
ANNA: In December 2005, Michael Schiavo starts a political action committee, “TerriPAC.” He wants to organize voters against politicians who will interfere in people’s personal lives. And he makes the living will a central point of his activism.
MICHAEL: I think the country have learned something. I hope they say remember the Terri Schiavo story. What do you want me to do if something happens to you? And I’m hoping that’s Terri’s legacy.
Michael believes everyone over the age of 17 should put their medical wishes in writing, so that what happened to Terri doesn’t happen again. Other key figures from the Schiavo case echo that refrain. George Felos:
FELOS: This case demonstrates more than anything could demonstrate that if you don’t take personal responsibility, and make your wishes known and do that in a formal sense, then your wishes may not be carried out…
And Judge Greer:
GREER: I think the real positive impact of the Terri Schiavo case was that young, middle-aged, old people and I qualify as the latter do know how important it is to write things down making sure that there’s nothing left for people to fight about.
And for many Americans, that is Terri’s legacy. They responded to the case by going out and getting their wishes written down.
But Bobby Schindler isn’t so enthusiastic about the living will. He says people need to be careful they understand just what they’re signing…and what terms like “artificial life support” really mean.
BOBBY: To put anything in writing nowadays, again, can be interpreted really in a way that’s not going to be in your best interest. Some of the wording is very subjective. Some of the wording is deliberately. It’s worded deliberately to work into the, in favor of the hospitals or the doctors or the insurance companies. So you’re best to avoid, put anything in writing and find a very reliable and trusting and a very strong and assertive healthcare agent that’s going to be your voice if you, if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t speak for yourself.
David Gibbs, of course, is an attorney. And he isn’t a fan of the living will, either. He points out that the first living will was created by the Euthanasia Society of America in 1972. It created a legal avenue for patients to declare a desire to die in case they were incapacitated.
Gibbs also points out that it’s hard for a living will to keep up with changes in technology. A patient might check a box on a form…and accidentally rule out something that could one day save their life.
LYNN: Since Season 1, Episode 1 of Lawless, we’ve been on a long journey with the major actors in Terri’s story. You may be wondering: where are they now?
On January 21, 2006, Michael Schiavo married Jodi Centonze. They’re married in her Catholic church in the presence of their two children. Today, Michael lives in Clearwater and still works as a nurse in the county’s correctional system.
George Felos recently relocated from Florida—and added a more spiritual element to his involvement in the profession of law.
FELOS: Hi, I’m George Felos, with an introduction to the guided meditation that follows.
He teaches a course called “Meditation for Lawyers.” It’s accredited by the Florida Bar for continuing legal education. The website tagline reads, “Discover the wisdom that lies within you.”
FELOS: We all desire and sometimes crave the rest, the renewal, the relaxation, the peace, that we find when we directly encounter our source, our core, our center. So this meditation is designed to help you do that. There’s nothing magical about it, nothing mystical about it.
Felos takes lawyers through bodily relaxation, then an assessment of thoughts and sensations, then what he calls an exploration of the core…of essence.
FELOS: Does the sky care what shape the cloud is? Does it matter to the sky whether the cloud is gray or white?
He talks often about the Schiavo case.
FELOS: On a very on a personal level, one of the greatest challenges in this case, was trying to remain open hearted, and not hating the people who I was dealing with because is, I’ll be honest, religious fundamentalism gives me the willies. It’s, it’s very difficult for me to relate to a mindset that relegates to hell everyone else who doesn’t express out their belief in God or relationship with spirit in a different way.
ANNA: In the legal community, Judge Greer garners widespread esteem. Colleagues say it’s easy to feel like chopped liver when he’s around. Robert Butterworth is a former state attorney general. Once, he was giving a speech at a Florida Bar conference in Ohio. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was in the audience…but all of a sudden, he got up and walked out. Kennedy later apologized to Butterworth. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “I heard Judge Greer was outside, and I just had to meet him.”
Greer receives 20 awards, almost all of them for his handling of the Schiavo case. The most significant is from the Florida Bar: The 2005 President’s Award of Merit, for his “unswerving commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the fundamentals of American democracy.”
GREER: I’ve been retired since the end of December of 2010. I did serve 18 years as a judge, which in my humble opinion is the highest job anybody in the legal profession can have…
Greer stays quiet about the Schiavo case for years. No interviews, no comments to the press. He does write a chapter in the 2018 book “Tough Cases.” And in 2021, he breaks his silence again to address St. Petersburg College.
GREER: I did the best I could. And I, I have no real regrets on the case. I have regrets on how it played out. I think that was unfortunate. But the legal decision was was not complicated. And it was affirmed by every appellate judge that that looked at the case. I think it critical that I was able to hold my ground. Because if I hadn't, if I had a capitulated to either the legislative branch or the executive branch, it would, I think, nationally, would have weakened the the ability of the courts to be perceived as a third co-equal branch of government.
LYNN: Pat Anderson and Tom Brodersen are still practicing law in St. Pete Beach. Pat hates talking about the Schiavo case. But she’s never been able to shake it.
ANDERSON: I kept her alive for three and a half years. I didn’t sleep through the night, once during that time. I’ve blocked a lot of it from my memory. It’s so painful. It was really just slow motion judicial murder.
Once a bright-eyed optimist, she’s lost some of her faith in the judicial system.
ANDERSON: I had devoted my virtually my entire adult life to the practice of law and believed in the rule of law. And that ultimately, justice would prevail. And that was not the case in this matter, I don’t feel that justice prevailed.
After our interview, she’s drained. Emotionally exhausted. Tom is less visibly affected by the case. But he still feels it.
LYNN: It’s all these years later, almost 20 years later, and this still has a hold of you. How did that time with Terri change you?
TOM: Well, I almost certainly am a little more cynical about the system than I started out.
LYNN: And what about your friendship with Terri, it sounds like you still carry that with you.
TOM: …Yeah, absolutely. I had an impact on a little piece of her life. She had an impact on a big piece of mine.
David Gibbs still keeps in touch with the Schindlers. He has Bob Schindler’s birthday marked on his calendar.
GIBBS: …And Mary and I talk on the day Terri passed, and on the day of Bob’s birthday every year for a few minutes, and reminisce and talk.
Gibbs knows that’s unusual. For a lot of attorneys, when a case is over, so is the relationship.
GIBBS: They call litigators bathtub brains, you pull the bottom out drains and fill it back up with the next case.
But this was different.
GIBBS: I mean, it forever marked all of us in different ways.
A few years ago, Suzanne embarked on a new adventure—setting sail aboard a catamaran in the Virgin Islands.
SUZANNE: I actually chef on this boat with my husband, who’s the captain of this boat. So we really pretty much take people out on week long vacation, you know, week long vacations where I chef and he captains.
ANNA: After Bob Schindler’s death, Mary lived by herself in a Florida condo for a time.
MARY: And I liked it there. It was fine. There was people, all kinds of people, you know, I made friends with people. Bobby used to come down a lot, Suzanne did too, you know, to visit and stay with me…
Later, Mary moved in with Bobby…until Bobby decided to sell his house.
MARY: …Then Bobby got married. Suzanne moved to the Virgin Islands, you know, and here I am alone. So my brother decided to sell his house up there in Corning. And he came down to stay with me for a while and then they decided they were gonna live in Florida. They didn’t want to stay in Corning anymore. It was too cold. So he asked me if I wanted to live with them. And I said yes because that I didn’t know where I wanted to be. I still don’t. All I knew is I didn’t want to be alone.
She isn’t. Almost three years ago, Mike and C.B. moved to a sprawling farm outside Dothan, Alabama. Mary went, too. Now she spends her days on 42 acres of rural farmland. Horses in the pastures. Cows at the fence. The property is laced with woods and meadows and dotted with barns, a woodshop, and chicken coops.
It’s quite a change from life in St. Pete. Life is simple here. Peaceful. Mary is 82 now. Every morning, she and C.B. head to the henhouse to gather eggs.
LYNN: We did a lot of our reporting for this podcast in 2021 and 22. But I sat down with Bobby last week, just to check in. Today, he’s still fighting for the medically vulnerable. He’s president of his family’s foundation—now called Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network.
One question I want to ask you is, what has it been like for you participating in this podcast project?
BOBBY: Well, that’s a good question. It’s brought back a lot a lot of memories come flooding back listening to, to the, to the episodes, things that I did not remember. Things that brought up a lot of emotion. It’s interesting, listening to some of Season Two and listening to Congress getting involved and the legislature, it’s, it’s almost like you think there could be a different outcome, you kind of get caught up in all the excitement.
Bobby was a college student when Terri suffered her brain injury. After graduating from Florida State University, he became a high school math and science teacher. He loved the work. But advocating for Terri changed the entire course of his life.
BOBBY: Doing this nonprofit work, as a patient advocate with the with Terri’s experience, it was an easy an easy decision to make. Because something I didn't realize during Terri’s case that I did, as my family went through it is there’s a lot of families that are dealing with, with a lot of Terris out there, trying to protect them and care for them and treat them and they’re being told no, and they need help.
Now, there’s a new venture in the making.
BOBBY: We’ve been working with Catholic Healthcare International. We've been working with them for five years now. They have a vision to replicate Padre Pio St. Padre Pio.
Padre Pio was a Catholic priest who started a hospital in Italy. Today, the hospital is well-known for its research.
BOBBY: Jared Palazzolo is the president of Catholic Health Care International. He has a vision to replicate that and bring it here in the States. And that would be in a little place called Howell Michigan. So we're working with him. He has dedicated a part of it to start a brain MRI rehabilitation center for the brain injured, it’s going to be called the Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain Injured. So we’re very excited about this. It’s something we’ve been wanting to do ever since Terri died. To help people like Terri, those who haven't given up on those that are told that they can't improve, to bring them to this to the center that can hopefully help them when others give up on them.
LYNN: So what about the concept of forgiveness in this situation? I know you have to have wrestled with that…
BOBBY: Well, yeah, yes, I mean, forgiveness is always helpful when the other person is also seeking forgiveness. In this case, I guess it’ll be Michael and some of the other players that were responsible for Terri’s death. But you have to live knowing that that’s probably not going to happen. I try to make them part of my prayers. I would never say no to somebody, if they were, if they were sincere in wanting and wanting to say they’re sorry, or come to me to talk about what happened as far as what happened to my sister, I would always be open to talking to somebody. I do my best to find that part of me that wants to forgive them. It’s difficult, because I think of just the pain. I think about that, I get I can’t, I can’t tell you emotionally, how that affects me when I think of my mom and my dad. It’s a very difficult process. And you really do need God’s graces to come to terms with that.
Bobby is glad that Terri’s story has allowed his family to help others. But as important, Bobby says, is the way Terri helped him.
BOBBY: Also Lynn, I really wasn’t much of a practicing Catholic, really much of a Christian, at the time that my sister’s case started, I thought it was, it was only through experience, and subsequently, the experiences that I’ve had since her death, that really make me or helped me understand the importance of the relationship I need to have with Christ. Because I wasn’t living that kind of life before Terri’s case. I will oftentimes say, when I speak, that our family and me and doing everything we think we could to save Terri. And unbeknownst to me, she was working...
Bobby struggled here. It took him a moment to find his voice again.
BOBBY: …I don’t know what she was thinking. But maybe she was working, knowing that I need to be saved. At least she got me back on, hopefully the path to someday be with her again.
ANNA: Lawless is a production of WORLD Radio. Paul Butler is our executive producer and sound engineer. Our production assistant is Lillian Hamman. Music by Will Shehan. Lawless is reported and written by Grace Snell, Lynn Vincent, and me, Anna Johansen Brown.
Our voice actors this season were Joy O’Reagan, Jane Johansen, and Daniel Paladin. Legal counsel from Jonathan Bailie. Nick Eicher is our Chief Content Officer.
Special thanks to everyone who gave their time for interviews, and thanks to all of you for joining us this season.
(in order of appearance)
Reactions in New York to Schiavo death, Youtube video by AP Archive
Public Views on the Schiavo Case [3/31/05], audio from NPR
Cardinal Martino condemns Schiavo death, Youtube video by AP Archive
Bush, Congress React to Schiavo Death [4/6/05], audio from NPR
George Felos press briefing [Terri dies pt.1]
Channel 28: Tampa Bay News , video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Shortcut of Terri Schiavo story, Youtube video by koliberek89
CBN News Watch [3/31/2006], video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Carrie Kirkland: Tube out 14 days, audio courtesy of Tampa WMTX mix 100.7
Nancy Grace and Scarborough Country pt. 1 [3/28/06], video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Terri Schiavo Case [10/2/07], video courtesy of CSPAN
Terri Schiavo [3/5/19], audio by You’re Wrong About… Podcast
Episode 49: This is Your Brain on Bulimia - Terri Schiavo’s Right to Die, audio by Unethical Podcast
Starved, audio by That’s Messed Up: An SVU Podcast
National Right For Life: A Tribute to Terri [7/1/05], video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Terri Schiavo funeral mass [4/5/2005], video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Remembering Terri Schiavo Part 1, Youtube video by Facing Life Head On
Remembering Terri Schiavo Part 2, Youtube video by Facing Life Head On
FOX: Alan Colmes and Michael Schiavo [2/10/2015], video courtesy of the Terri Schiavo archives at Ave Maria University
Family Guy - Pre School Musical Terri Schiavo and Stewie Stage Fright, Youtube video by Howard Stephen Posadas Ardon
George Felos - Lessons From the Schiavo Case Part 3, Youtube video by George Felos & Meditation For Lawyers
Terri Schiavo Documentary: The Case's Enduring Legacy | Retro Report | The New York Times, Youtube video by The New York Times
George Felos press briefing [Terri dies pt.2]
The Terri Schiavo Case with Judge Greer, Youtube video by St. Petersburg College
Relax & Renew!– Notice the Background: Guided Meditation with George Felos, Youtube video by George Felos & Meditation For Lawyers
George Felos - Lessons From the Schiavo Case Part 2, Youtube video by George Felos & Meditation For Lawyers
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.