LYNN VINCENT, HOST: In the second week of March 2005, the whole country is talking about Terri Schiavo.
OPRAH: Okay, should Terri Schiavo live or die. It is one of the most bitter and controversial legal battles in the country.
At the center of the storm: Florida Hospice of the Suncoast. The street outside vibrates with prayer and protests.
PROTESTORS: Let Terri live, let Terri live
Police are barricading every entrance. Blocking protesters from entering hospice grounds. And Terri is entering her second week with no food or water.
JANET MORANA: Her lips were all cracked. Because imagine no water, no hydration. And her eyes were dashing back and forth.
That’s pro-life activist, Janet Morana. By this time Morana and a coalition of pro-life and direct action protesters had discussed a plan to rescue Terri. A kind of smash-and-grab operation…without the smash.
JANET MORANA: We just get all the ones who want to rescue Terri, we have a plan, we go in the middle of the night we just march in there. And she's not on any machinery, we just put her on a stretcher, and we have a jet waiting, a private jet that we’ll get a donor to donate and we'll fly her to a nearby island like Bermuda or Nassau…
Morana wasn’t the only one planning a rescue.
NPR: Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret commando and leader of far right militia movement, decided that he would come in on his own and try to rescue Terri Schiavo.
Terri’s parents issue a statement saying they don’t want any more civil disobedience. But there’s a third rescue attempt in the works. This time, it’s not citizens up in arms. It’s an official government action. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement dispatches a car and a doctor. They’re going to take Terri into protective custody.
That means that state police…and the local cops guarding Terri… are headed for a showdown.
From WORLD Radio, and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It: This is Lawless. I’m New York Times bestselling author and WORLD Magazine senior writer Lynn Vincent.
Lawless is a new true crime podcast that examines a frightening fact of American life: That not every crime is against the law.
Welcome to a special double episode of The Terri Schiavo Story, our final episode in Season 1. This is Episode 8: “A Little Slice of Hell.
The first day of the 2000 feeding tube trial, just two local reporters showed up to cover the case. No big deal. But on day two, it’s a whole different ball game. The stately, cavernous courtroom now bustles with journalists, cameras, microphones. This is a case with legs…it’s going places. Editors and producers want their reporters to be here when it does.
But for Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers…they’d rather be anywhere but here. They’re exhausted, stressed, terrified, angry. Terri’s former guardian ad litem Richard Pearse may have described the whole situation best.
PEARSE: This is a case that nobody in the world should ever want to be involved in. I mean, this is, this is just a terrible, terrible situation. You know, everybody went through a little slice of hell there.
So far, Michael’s evidence that Terri wouldn’t want to live in her current condition is pretty sparse. If he wants to convince Judge Greer, he needs more proof. And he needs to flesh out another argument: How did Terri’s faith affect her end-of-life wishes?
The Schindlers come from a big, boisterous, Catholic family. Terri, Bobby, and Suzanne all attended a Catholic parochial school. But Michael’s family says Terri wasn’t the faithful Catholic her parents claimed. Michael’s brother, Scott Schiavo:
SCOTT SCHIAVO: She graduated went to Catholic schools her whole life, but she wasn't a full fledge churchgoer, like they're making her sound.
On the last day of her normal life—life before her brain injury— Terri went to a 5 p.m. mass with her parents. It was an ordinary Friday afternoon, two days before Lent.
Bob and Mary say Terri is a good Catholic girl. And they are adamant that she would never have wanted her feeding tube removed…because it would contradict Catholic teaching.
BOBBY: If you understand the teachings of the Church, then you will know that um, that to remove Terri's feeding tube would deliver her food and hydration, which was the only thing sustaining her life, that is that is against the teachings of the Church.
And so, the Catholic church will never support dehydrating Terri to death. Right? Enter Father Gerard Murphy, a chaplain for the Catholic Medical Association. When Bob Schindler sees him sitting outside the courtroom, he thinks Murphy is there to support his family. Bob…is wrong.
The day before the trial started, two more Schiavos had come to town. Michael’s brother, Scott, and his sister-in-law, Joan. Down from Philadelphia. Not just to support Michael. To testify.
Remember: Michael has already testified. Now it’s his brother’s turn. Michael’s petition claims Terri would not have wanted to live in an irreversible condition. Scott is here to give evidence to support that.
Scott takes a seat in the witness chair. This is a bench trial and there is no jury. Judge George Greer will weigh the evidence and render a verdict. As George Felos questions Scott Schiavo, he tells this story.
It was 1988. The Schiavos’ grandmother had severe heart disease and her body was failing. Hospital staff put her on a ventilator. After only two days, she died. Michael and Terri weren’t there, but they came up to Philadelphia for the funeral. Afterward, the whole family went out to lunch at a fancy place. A country club.
SCOTT: I can sit here and tell you that my grandmother's funeral, who was had signed as signed DNR and they the people at the hospital, neglected to follow it, they resuscitate her put her on a machine and left her there to die.
That’s Scott telling the story later, on TV. And when at her funeral, we were all at after the funeral. We were out at lunch. We were all talking. I can still see Terry sitting right next to me. To my left, look at me right in the eyes and say, not me. I never want to live like that. Don't ever let that I've never want that. Don't ever let them do that to me. And I can still see her look at me straight in the eyes.
After Felos wraps up, the Schindlers’ attorney Pam Campbell takes her turn. On cross-examination, she asks Scott whether he ever told Michael about Terri’s statement.
No, Scott says.
Not in all the years since Terri’s brain injury?
No, Scott says.
After Scott’s testimony, Judge Greer recesses the court for lunch. Suzanne’s fiancee, Michael Vitadamo, says he will never forget what happened next. He told me about it when I interviewed him in St. Pete last year.
VITADAMO: We were going outside during one of the recesses, and Suzanne was right in front of me. And we opened the door and Michael Schiavo was facing her and went, "I gotcha."
Vitadamo shows me the hand motion Michael made at the time—pointing at Suzanne, his hand curled into the shape of a gun. I make my hand a gun, too.
LYNN: Okay. Like that.
VITADAMO: Yeah. Like got ya
LYNN: What do you think he meant by that? Because I didn't hear everything that happened before. He said, What did he mean by that
VITADAMO: I've never spoken to him. So I don't know. I think it's just
LYNN: Like gloating?
VITADAMO: Yes. gloating. Yes. For sure.
SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: Lawless is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from Samaritan Ministries, a Biblical solution to health care, connecting Christians across the nation who care for one another spiritually and financially when a medical need arises. More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.
Next, Felos calls Dr. James Barnhill to the stand. Barnhill is Felos’s expert medical witness. He’s the veteran of half a dozen right-to-die cases… including the granddaddy of all such cases in Florida—the Estelle Browning case. Felos’s first foray into Florida’s right to die, or “self-determination” movement.
During extremely lengthy testimony, Barnhill delivers his medical assessment of Terri. Not only is she in PVS, Barnhill says; she’s “terminal”—since without the feeding tube, she’d die. Yes: without food and water, Terri Schiavo would die. But wouldn’t we all?
Barnhill’s statement is quite a semantic leap. But he is able to make this leap because of the lawyer standing in front him. Even up until 1999, food and hydration in Florida was considered ordinary humane care. But Felos worked with the state legislature to redefine food and water delivered through a tube. Now, in 2000, it’s classified as a medical procedure…as “artificial life support.” Just in time for the Schiavo trial.
Barnhill’s testimony continues. He displays CAT scans comparing his own brain with Terri’s. He notes the large quantity of spinal fluid in Terri’s skull as compared with the healthy tissue in his own. Barnhill says Terri’s chances of regaining brain function are “zero.”
Felos asks him what will happen to Terri if her feeding tube is removed. What will her death be like? Barnhill says: “I hesitate to say it is a peaceful death…But I will say it is pretty unremarkable.”
Next, Felos questions Barnhill about Terri’s apparent responsiveness. All just reflexes, Barnhill says. When she moans, it just shows her vocal cords are intact. When she smiles—just muscles shifting in the face. What about laughing, crying, turning her head toward sounds? Barnhill says he knows he sounds like a broken record. But those are all reflexes, too. Mediated by the brain stem.
Felos asks, what if these reflexes happen at appropriate times…say, in response to a loved one…? People see what they want to see, Barnhill says. Wishful thinking.
Now, it’s time for the next witness. Father Gerard Murphy takes the stand. He’s the Catholic priest Bob Schindler thought was there to teach Judge Greer what Catholics think about euthanasia.
Bob is shocked to learn he’s Michael’s witness.
The Schindlers will argue that Terri never would have expressed the wish to die because the Catholic church teaches the sanctity of human life. Dan Lynch is a Catholic and former probate judge of 25 years. He explains Catholic doctrine on feeding tubes.
DAN LYNCH: We are all human beings, gifts of God that have to be cared for and protecting God calls us. Nobody's a vegetable. And even if you are what they might call a vegetable, you cannot be killed. The Holy Father said artificial hydration and nutrition that's food and water must be provided. It's morally obligatory, to provide that to a person who is sick or disabled.
But back in the courtroom, here comes Father Murphy to say otherwise.
Murphy introduces the idea of ordinary versus extraordinary means. He says Catholics are morally bound to respect and care for life…but aren’t required to go to extraordinary lengths to do so, especially if the burdens of the treatment outweigh the benefits.
Felos asks, “Does the Catholic Church require someone to have all medical treatments and procedures to keep them alive?
Murphy says no. In fact, Murphy believes the “technology” keeping Terri alive has become “an obstacle for nature taking its course.” In the courtroom gallery, Terri’s sister Suzanne Schindler is sitting with her fiancee, Michael Vitadamo. Listening to Father Murphy’s testimony, she feels…
SUZANNE: Um confused. Like, what? Almost like what? That you know, how you can think that? Right? You'd be like, what, what just happened? That kind of thing. So and then angry, you know, angry that, of course, and what ensued after that was just the non support we got from the entire Catholic community in St. Pete...so it’s just really sad.
As the trial continues, all those reporters are still watching…and taking notes. As the facts get out, the Schiavo case begins to percolate in local news.
CARRIE KIRKLAND: Some people in the Tampa Bay area, were aware that there was a woman in our local area where the husband and family were arguing over whether or not she should be taken off of life support.
That’s radio host Carrie Kirkland. When the Schiavo case started making news, Kirkland is only 24 years old.
CARRIE KIRKLAND: One of the big misconceptions about the story all the way throughout, is that the news was reporting that she was on life support, which obviously, you know, gives the visualization that she's on some sort of breathing apparatus or something. And when you know, I and the other news people and radio personalities in town realized that she's actually on a feeding tube, which means that she would have to starve to death, it does change how people perceive the story.
Kirkland’s been working in radio nonstop since she was eighteen, and now, she’s reached her first career milestone: She finally has her own call-in show.
SOUND: MIX 100.7 INTRO / THEME: “I want Carrie...I want Carrie…”
CARRIE KIRKLAND: My show was called “Into the Night with Carrie Kirkland" on mix 107 in Tampa, and it was a radio station for soccer moms…My show was, you know, light and fluffy and fun…
But Kirkland has other ambitions. She has a friend in talk radio, a quirky guy who works out of a studio down the hall. His name is Glenn Beck. You know the name. Big national talk show. Ultra-conservative. Firebrand politics.
GLENN BECK: RADIO BROADCAST CLIP
But before all that, Beck hosted a more lighthearted show in the Tampa market. As the Schiavo case revved up in the local news, reporters started taking sides. Beck was no exception. But you might be surprised whose side he landed on. Beck stood staunchly with Michael Schiavo.
GLENN BECK: I'm not saying let's gang up on Michael because I felt last week I kind of ganged up on the family….Because I wouldn't want to live that way.
Carrie likes Beck’s show and thinks she’d like to get into talk radio herself. She has no idea that she’d get her first chance with the Terri Schiavo story.
Back in the courtroom, Michael’s sister-in-law, Joan Schiavo, takes the stand. As Felos questions her, Joan describes how close she and Terri had become. They talked every week, sometimes more than once.
Joan recalls many conversations she had with Terri related to artificial life support. In one, friends of Joan’s had a sick baby who was surviving only on a ventilator. Finally, the baby’s parents decided to remove it. Joan says Terri supported that decision. Joan says they probably talked about the baby a dozen times.
In addition, Joan tells Felos she and Terri had another conversation about life support. It was after they’d watched a movie about a diver who broke his neck. The diver was brain dead and being kept alive artificially. After the movie, Terri said, “I would never put my husband through anything like that. If anything like that ever happened to me, I would hope to God that they would pull the plug, because I would never want to live like that.”
Joan goes on to say she and Terri even discussed living wills. Advance directives. Putting it in writing that she, Terri, would never want any kind of artificial life support.
On cross examination, Pam Campbell asks Joan whether she ever told Michael about these conversations. According to Joan, these two women—both in their early 20’s at the time—had more than a dozen of these talks. On three different topics. The baby. The diver movie. Living wills.
This raises a question for me. A question never asked in the feeding tube trial. By all accounts the Schiavos were close, all the brothers and their wives. And Joan was one of Terri’s best friends. How is it that over all the years Michael kept Terri alive, Joan never mentioned to him that he was causing her dear friend to suffer against her will?
As I mentioned, Scott never said anything, either. When pressed, he says it was because Michael was so upset early on…and so determined to help Terri get better. Scott says he didn’t think Michael could handle hearing it. But what about 1993, when Michael denied Terri antibiotics? Michael said then he was trying to make a decision on what Terri would want.
Why didn’t Scott and Joan mention Terri’s wishes then? But neither Scott nor Joan ever mentioned these wishes to anyone—until George Felos. Finally, it’s the Schindlers’ turn on the stand. Mary is up first.
MARY: The trial just didn', um…. It was terrible. I just didn't want to go every day. I just didn't want to go near it.
Campbell asks her about a typical day with Terri. Mary describes visiting with her daughter, the nursing home schedule, how Terri laughs and cries and follows her mom with her eyes. Campbell then asks Mary, “Did you bring anything else with you today to demonstrate a typical visit with Terri?”
SOUND FROM HOME VIDEO
And that’s when Mary first brings up the “ace in the hole.” That video Michael Vitadamo made. Campbell addresses Judge George Greer: “Your honor, I would like to play this video for the court.” Felos objects. He himself has only just seen the video that morning, he says. He hasn’t had a chance to show it to his expert witnesses.
FELOS: What these little bits of videotape do are misleading...Now, if you say Terri, open your eyes, nothing may happen…If you just have a little snippet of video of the 31st time you say that where somebody says Terri, open your eyes and she opens her eyes. Somebody will say oh my god, look at that. She's responding to commands. It's obvious to everyone that she's responsive that she's in there. But they don't show you the first 30 times in which they give Terri the command, and there’s absolutely nothing.
Felos also notes that there seems to be a break or gap in the tape, That means it may not even be authentic. Further, how is the court to interpret the video? Judge Greer isn’t a neurologist, Felos points out. At best, the whole video thing is a waste of time.
Campbell fights back. It’s an amateur video, she says. She’s not aware of any gaps in it. And Felos has already seen it. So her obligation to provide it to opposing counsel has been met. In the end, Greer does not allow the video into evidence. At least for now.
When Mary’s testimony continues, Campbell asks her why she had the video of Terri made. “Because I wanted people to see, the court to see, what I see. I think she understands. I think she knows I’m there…I just want her to live.” But when George Felos cross-examines Mary, she gets confused and upset.
MARY: Felos did ask me questions about her wishes. Yes. Yeah, he did not Pam. But he did. He asked me. Yeah, no, I said I never heard her You know, express her wishes to me about that. I just thought that he couldn't wait to all I had thinking was he couldn't wait to take her feeding tube away.
After Mary, there’s a surprise witness: Michael Vitadamo. Judge Greer allows Campbell to call Vitadamo to the stand in order to authenticate his videotape.
Felos grills him. What was the purpose of the tape? Did he know there was a trial going on? How were Bob and Mary involved? The questions and answers are staccato, as Felos and Vitadamo spar back and forth.
At the end of this exchange, Felos still isn’t satisfied. He renews his objection to Campbell showing the tape. And Judge Greer? He says he doesn’t feel good about seeing it. Doesn’t know what a brief clip from Terri’s day is going to show him. And yet…Greer decides he would be remiss if doesn’t see the tape. And so, Campbell shows it. It’s less than three minutes long.
SOUND FROM HOME VIDEO:
MARY: Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.
As the tape rolls, Vitadamo watches Greer.
VITADAMO: I remember Greer not even wanting to look at the videotape monitors. He didn't even look. He wouldn't even turn his head to the directions in the monitors…
LYNN: You know, his eyesight is super bad. Could that be why he didn't look at the video monitor?
VITADAMO: I mean, why not even I mean, he had glasses that he wore for every other occasion…Why when you put them on and look at the monitors then?
LYNN: That's interesting. So here you are sitting in the gallery observing him not even looking at the video that you shot.
LYNN: What are you thinking?
VITADAMO: We're doomed. That's what I thought.
All told, the trial takes five days. Terri’s friends Jackie Rhodes and Diane Meyer testify to Terri’s love for life—testimony in direct opposition to that of Scott and Joan Schiavo. But Rhodes and Meyers’ testimony doesn’t seem to land well with Greer.
The Schindlers had gone into the courtroom feeling confident. Now, though, they feel frustrated and afraid. They’re upset with the things Michael has said. They feel that Felos has twisted their testimonies. They wish Campbell had called other friends and relatives as witnesses to support their side—Uncle Fred’s daughter, Kathy, for example. And they’re deeply, deeply worried about how Judge George Greer is going to rule.
February 11th, 2000. Three weeks after the end of the trial, Bob Schindler’s phone rings. It’s attorney Pam Campbell’s office. And there’s news. Judge George Greer has issued his ruling.
MARY SCHINDLER: We were home, I think in the condo. And we were waiting...And then they called us and...told us that Pam would like to see us all in her office.
Campbell wants the Schindlers to drive all the way downtown to learn Greer’s ruling. Mary doesn’t like the sound of that at all.
MARY SCHINDLER: It was scaring me...I just had a feeling that if we won, she would be screaming it on the phone to us, you know, get over here right away. We won. We won. We won. But that’s not what happened.
But it turns out that Campbell doesn’t actually have the ruling yet. Bob and Mary make the trip in utter silence.
MARY SCHINDLER: In my gut, I just had an awful feeling. I don't know. I just did.
AMBI: STREET AT PAM CAMPBELL’S OFFICE
Pam Campbell’s office is in the 100-year-old Alexander Building. Four or five media vans are already parked out front, waiting for the Schindlers. And when Bob and Mary arrive, the silence implodes.
MARY SCHINDLER: We got there, trying to find a place to park because there was a ton of TV cameras and stuff….When we got out of the car, and they were sticking...microphones in our face...shouting ...What do you think about the decision? Are you devastated? …Well, we don't know anything about the decision….We didn't say anything. We just kept on walking.
Pam Campbell’s assistant hurries outside to shepherd the Schindlers through the gauntlet of reporters and into a ground-floor conference room. Bobby is already there and Suzanne arrives a few minutes later. Then they sit, silent...and wait for the verdict.
BOBBY: We all knew a ruling was coming in, it was...it was life or death, it was the fate of my sister. And I remember when the fax was coming in … I was looking at the fax machine. As the ruling was coming in to the machine … the paper coming out, we're all sitting there watching and Pam walked over. And then I'll never forget….Pam was reading through it. And I think she shook her head and said, it's not good...
Judge George Greer has ruled in Michael Schiavo’s favor. He’s is allowing Michael to order Terri dehydrated to death.
BOBBY: And we just, you know...you just get kicked in the gut. Just kind of sitting there in disbelief.
Mary starts crying and can’t stop. Suddenly, the Schindlers realize they don’t have much time left with Terri. They don’t know when the tube will be removed. But they think it will be soon.
MARY SCHINDLER: A couple days, I figured, but both of us Bob and I figured in a couple of days, because we knew Michael wanted to get this over with. We knew that he wanted that money that he got from the from the trial. We knew all this stuff.…
Mary was an ordinary suburban mom. She didn’t know anything about the appeals process.
MARY SCHINDLER: I thought in a couple days, I'm gonna lose my daughter. And that's it, you know, it's gonna be over.
Michael Schiavo first hears the verdict from his fiance’s brother, John Centonze. Centonze had seen it on the news. Michael immediately calls George Felos for confirmation. Felos has just gotten the fax. He tells Michael, “We won.”
When Michael hears those words, he starts running around shouting, “We won! We won! We won!” For a few moments, he is excited beyond belief. Then, he writes in his book, he “suddenly felt the cold chill of a dagger” in his heart. “The decision meant that Terri was going to die.”
Back at Campbell’s office, a dagger pierces Mary’s heart, too. And amid her tears, the Schindler family faces a storm of questions:
MARY SCHINDLER: You know, as a mother, you're thinking about your child...I'm thinking, now what's going to happen? ...What's Michael going to do?...What's Felos going to do?
The hardest thing for Bobby and Suzanne is watching their parents’ anguish.
BOBBY: Seeing just the pain and heartache, heartache they were experiencing all because they want to take care of their daughter. It just didn't make sense to me.
The Schindlers head back to their condo and start brainstorming. Maybe there’s something they can do, someone else who can help. They agree they are unhappy with Campbell’s work on their case. But how can they afford a new attorney? Before the malpractice judgment, they’d wiped out their savings caring for Terri. Then: an old friend comes up with a new plan...
MARY SCHINDLER: I remember when we got home, there was...a friend of Bobby's there. His name was Steven Meyer. They have been friends for a long time...he says what we're going to do, he says open up a foundation, he said, and we're going to start raising money...he's going on and on.
The Schindlers stare at Steven. Open a foundation? That’s a crazy idea. How would that even work?
MARY SCHINDLER: He said yes, we're going to open that foundation in her name and...you and your family are going to run it.
After the devastating news at Campbell’s office, the idea is the Schindlers’ first glimmer of hope. But first, they need to find a new lawyer. The Schindlers track down a man willing to take the case: Joe Magri, a lawyer specializing in the appeals process.
He starts filing a flurry of motions and legal maneuvers, and eventually secures a hearing with a three-judge panel. The panel won’t rehear the case, but the judges will assess Greer’s ruling.
While Magri is following up on legal strategies, the Schindlers are also hunting for new evidence. The day after Greer’s ruling, they get another lifeline. Three doctors volunteer to visit Terri. They spend an hour with her, assessing her condition, then file affidavits outlining what they saw.
One of those doctors is Jay Carpenter. He runs a medical clinic and is board certified in internal medicine. In his affidavit, Dr. Carpenter describes his visit with Terri. At one point, Mary Schindler brings out a stuffed animal. Terri looks at it, then back up at Mary. Dr. Carpenter writes that Terri is clearly responding...not making random movements.
MARY: When I used to come in to the door, I used to stay by the stand by the door and I’d say, Terri, Terri, and she'd turn her head towards where I was standing. And you could see her smile.
BOBBY: Without fail--
MARY: Every time--
BOBBY: Terri would respond to my mom.
Another doctor, James Avery, also files an affidavit supporting the Schindlers. He testifies to Terri’s responsiveness. But when I talk to him now, he tells a different story.
JIM AVERY: Terri's mom was sort of playing with a teddy bear. And saying, watch Terri, follow the teddy bear watch, Terri following a teddy bear. And a couple of things I learned. One is that it wasn't really clear how intact she was…one of the doctors who was with me, he felt that she was fine, that maybe she was following at times. I was not convinced, but it maybe seemed like it. That's why I wrote the affidavit. But I know my impressions were very clear back then, that, wow, this is severe brain damage.
In fact, Avery told me he wrote the affidavit as he did because…well, he was running a pro-life organization and he said what he was expected to say.
JIM AVERY: And I'm not sure she's responding, but she might be. I remember being surprised by the severity. And also, and this is where I think I didn't really see much of this in the press. I don't think that the family, particularly the mom, and this is not uncommon in hospice, really seem to be in some significant denial about the actual situation here.
But Dr. Avery does notice that Terri never drools. That means she must be swallowing her own saliva. Which means…she can swallow.
Meanwhile, Mary Schindler is living in constant fear. She doesn’t know what will happen next. What Michael might do. One day, three weeks after Greer’s death order, her fear turns to terror. Mary goes to Palm Garden nursing home to visit Terri. But Terri is gone.
MARY SCHINDLER: And we, we panicked. We didn't know what Michael did, because we know we knew that he could do everything, anything he wanted. He could put her somewhere and never tell us where we put her. She would be dead and I would never know it.
Terrified, Mary calls Bob and Bobby. Together, they go on a crusade for answers.
MARY SCHINDLER: We made phone calls, we called our lawyer...And we finally got information that Michael moved her to hospice during the night.
Hospice. Not a rehab center or a nursing home. Michael Schiavo moved Terri to Florida Hospice of the Suncoast. It’s a facility that worked closely with the right-to-die movement. And...where Schiavo’s attorney George Felos had until very recently been chairman of the board.
Here’s how the move happened.
It was March 3, 2000—Less than three weeks after Greer’s ruling to remove Terri’s feeding tube. Dr. Vic Gambone, a doctor hired by Michael Schiavo, telephones Palm Garden nursing home. As Gambone spoke, a staff member scribbled down what he said. I have a copy of Gambone’s telephone order.
“Terminal diagnosis is vegetative state. Have hospice pick up patient...”
In 2000, Florida law required that hospice patients be certified as terminally ill by two physicians. But Terri was moved to hospice on Gambone’s order alone.
State law also required that hospice patients have less than six months to live. But at this point in the case, Terri still has decades to live. None of Terri’s doctors has ever pronounced her terminal. But by signing her death order, Judge George Greer has.
In November of 2000, those three doctors testify before that three judge panel. Two months later, the panel rules–they uphold Greer’s decision.
MARY SCHINDLER: I’d get my hopes up...I would like think...Oh, my gosh, this is gonna work...the judge is gonna see this…Well, went to court. Slapped it right down.
As the case snowballs, more and more media outlets are picking up the story. It’s not just local coverage anymore.
NANCY GRACE: Good evening, everybody. I'm Nancy Grace. I want to thank you for being with us tonight
The Schiavo case is on national platforms with big personalities. Nancy Grace, prosecutor turned broadcast journalist, sits down with Bob Schindler, attorney Joe Magri, and George Felos. You’ll hear a little VHS static in this interview.
GRACE: Well, George Felos, I've got to ask you a tough question. Your client stands to gain quite a bit of money and I understand he's engaged to someone else.
FELOS: Well, the judge heard a week of testimony and believed that my client loves and cares for his wife, as he does. He has offered on many occasions to the Schindler parents to donate this money to charity if they withdraw their opposition to the removal of the feeding tube.
Michael had made that offer—at least once, though not “many times” as Felos just said. Remember, when Michael sent that offer back in 1998, the Schindlers were confused.
BOBBY: So now all of a sudden, because Michaels offering to donate the money to charity, my parents can say, Okay, go ahead and and starve Terri. And we were kind of scratching our heads like why would we don't we didn't understand why he was doing that..
Now, though, three years later, Bobby understands perfectly.
BOBBY: I think Felos was doing a good job of playing it anticipating how the media might report this, and I'll have to give him credit because he played it beautifully. He really did. He knew that this was going to come up. So his response to the media was, Well, Mike offered to donate the money to charity and the parents refused. And he left it at that.
Back on Court TV, Nancy Grace asks Joe Magri a question. Why doesn’t Michael simply give custody of Terri to her parents
MAGRI: Well, I think that's a good question, Nancy, I think that the parents ought to have the ability to decide things here. You know, some of the broad statements that have been made by Mr. Felos deserve a little look at. For instance, the statement that Terri repeatedly indicated that she wanted to not live in this condition never came up from her husband, during the trial in which he testified, trying to obtain money back in 1992. It it came up here, belatedly, in 1998. If he allowed the parents to make these decisions, he would have to divorce her and then he wouldn't be able to obtain this money.
Florida Hospice of the Suncoast is a low, sprawling facility on a little street in Pinellas Park Florida. It’s next door to an elementary school. Anna and I visited the property in May 2021. Lots of green shady walkways and stone benches dot the grounds. A fountain gurgles out front. It’s peaceful...serene. But that’s not how Bobby Schindler feels when he walks inside.
BOBBY: I gotta tell you walking into this hospice, you had a real, it was a real presence of, you know, I know, you hate to use the word evil but it did, it had a like a presence of evil when I would walk in there.
Once Terri is admitted to hospice, George Felos takes action to restrict access to her. He and Michael claim the Schindlers are “practically leading tours” through Terri’s room. He asks Judge Greer to put a stop to it, to limit who could come and visit. So Greer tells the Schindlers to draw up a list of names. Michael gets veto power—he can cross off anyone he chooses. Michael quickly crosses off Bobby and Suzanne.
MICHAEL SCHIAVO: So as far as the rest of the Schindler's I mean, if you look at her sister and brother, you know, before the media showed up, they I think I can count on one hand and the last 10 years that Bobby ever visited Terri. Suzanne, you know, I don't think she's ever visited Terri.
That wasn’t true. But it sounds damning when Michael says it on TV.
BOBBY: So it was all about isolating, it was all about control. Because they had to do everything they could to not allow any information about Terri’s condition, or any videos or any pictures to get out to the public. The one person that could hurt Michael's case….the one person that could disprove this was Terri.
Meanwhile, Joe Magri keeps pushing for something...anything. He asks for a rehearing. Denied. He asks Greer to recuse himself from the case. Denied.
The Schindlers are in anguish. They feel tossed back and forth. Like a beach ball among strangers. But they have found a glimmer of hope. Two new attorneys…who don’t fit the profile you might expect.
TOM BRODERSON: Hello! Come on in, this is my office, we can camp out in here…
This is Anderson/Brodersen, Attorneys At Law. Their offices are on a sandy street corner, three blocks from the waterfront in St. Pete Beach. Inside, Tom Brodersen, Esquire, sits at a massive wood desk and begins spooning homemade gazpacho into a paper cup.
BRODERSEN: Would you like to try some?...It’s got green peppers, cucumbers, celery, all pureed.
Brodersen has wispy white hair and a laid-back manner. Wears a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. His wife, Pat Anderson, sits across the room on a purple couch.
Anderson is a trial and appellate lawyer. She’s wearing a beige linen dress and sturdy sandals. For 23 years, Anderson worked as a media attorney for a string of newspapers that the New York Times owned in Florida.
She and her law partner defended an African-American-run weekly newspaper against the sheriff’s department. Defended reporters against corrupt police. Defended a public school teacher who was wrongfully fired. They won every case.
For years, the Schiavo case has been framed as “fire-breathing right wingers” versus the forces of law and reason. But both Anderson and Brodersen are liberal Democrats. In fact, o nce during our interview I mentioned Donald Trump. Brodersen looked at me like I’d stepped on a cowpie and traipsed it into his office.
In the spring of 2001, a friend mentions Schiavo vs. Schindler to Anderson.
PAT ANDERSON: I had a friend who was an attorney who was handling a legal matter for Suzanne, Terri's sister, and she asked me if I'd like...to get involved in the Schiavo case. And I didn't really know too much about it.
What Anderson learns sets her teeth on edge. Just the fact that Terri hadn’t had independent representation at the 2000 trial is appalling to her. For Anderson, the Schiavo case isn’t about politics or religion or the right to life. It’s about due process and disability rights, plain and simple. She takes the case.
Anderson papers the courts with a blizzard of motions. Each is shot down, one right after the other. Finally, Anderson and Magri appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. But in April of 2001, the court refuses to hear the case.
GEORGE FELOS: The Florida Supreme Court, as every other court in this country...has said and ruled that the artificial provision of nutrition and hydration is medical treatment that patients have a right to refuse.
Then, the Schindlers go to the court of last resort…
CHRIS O’CONNELL: Last spring her husband Michael Schiavo won the right to remove his wife's feeding tube, saying she would not want to live in this condition. But after many legal appeals by Terri's parents reaching as far as the US Supreme Court, Terri’s life still hangs in limbo…in Pinellas County, Chris O'Connell, Bay News Nine
The Supreme Court of the United States. It’s the only thing left for the Schindlers to do. The last appeal. If it fails, Greer’s order takes effect and Terri’s feeding tube gets pulled.
That year, a conservative majority dominated the bench.
But on April 23, 2001, it’s the end of the line. Justice Anthony Kennedy refuses to hear the case.
April 24, 2001. The day after Justice Kennedy declines the case.
Outside the hospice, a small group of protesters is praying and chanting slogans. Inside, Terri Schiavo lies in a tiny room with a single bed. By now, Michael has hired off-duty local police to guard the door to her room.
One of them is standing there, in the hallway. Inside the room, a doctor approaches Terri’s bed, bends down beside her, and disconnects her feeding tube. A swift and simple act. At that moment, a countdown begins. Doctors expect Terri to dehydrate to death within a week to ten days.
Terri’s sister Suzanne can’t believe what’s happening. When Judge Greer ruled in Michael’s favor in 2000, she had been sure it was a mistake. Somehow, someone would make it right. Now, a year later, Suzanne is desperate. Flailing for answers. That’s when a friend, Jana Carpenter, has an idea.
Jana is a nurse. Married to Jay Carpenter, the doctor who had advocated for Terri before that three-judge panel. In Jana’s view, Greer had ordered a sentient woman put to death, and she was hopping mad. She says to Suzanne…
SUZANNE: She was like, you know, we're going to...to feed her. You can take this baby food in there. And either you feed her or you ask the nurse to feed her because there's nowhere in the legal paperwork that says that Terri can't be fed by mouth.
Suzanne is up for the challenge. She takes the baby food from Jana, drives to the hospice, gets past the police officer guarding Terri’s door, and…
SUZANNE: The nurses ...saw me with baby food, and they all freaked out. And, you know, they weren't gonna let me do that.
Why not? As Carpenter said, nothing in Judge Greer’s order prohibited feeding Terri by mouth. But the hospice nurses are outraged.
SUZANNE: I remember the one of the nurses said, ‘Well, she may choke to death.’
Wait, what? It was okay for Terri to slowly dehydrate to death, but not okay for her to quickly choke to death? The absurdity causes Suzanne to snap.
SUZANNE: Tensions were high at the time, and my emotions were high. I remember...saying… ‘Are you all mothers? I mean, what about your children? Are you, you know, gonna let your children starve to death…?’
Bob and Mary Schindler are also at the hospice. They’re watching, helpless, as their daughter slips away. Bob’s phone rings. It’s a local TV reporter named Chris O’Connell.
BOBBY: Chris O’Connell had called to ask my dad for an interview...He was one of the few reporters that we felt was giving us...pretty fair and objective reporting.
But Bob says no. He’s wiped out. Completely defeated. There’s a McDonald’s around the corner from the hospice. Bobby decides to take his dad there for a break.
BOBBY: My dad and I are having coffee and I'm like, you know, dad, Chris has been pretty good to us. We're gonna pass Bay news nine...why don’t you stop and talk to him for a few minutes? And so my dad said, okay.
It seems like a minor decision. Bob saying yes when he wanted to say no. But sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that make the biggest difference.
Bob and Bobby hop in the car and drive to the TV station. Bobby is leaning against his car watching his dad do the interview when the station manager walks up. His name is Tim Boyles.
BOBBY: And he's sitting next to me goes, Hey, Bobby, did you hear the interview last night? I'm like, what interview?
CARRIE KIRKLAND: That particular night, I was literally going to go on the air with, you know, call in and tell me about your first kiss…
That was the kind of thing Carrie Kirkland did on her call-in program. But she did want to break into talk radio...so at the last minute, she decides to cover something more serious: the Terri Schiavo story.
CARRIE KIRKLAND: And we went on the air and we just opened up the phone lines to...you know, the public and said, you know, what do you think should happen?
Carrie thought it was going to be a normal night on the job. It isn’t.
CARRIE KIRKLAND: We were on the air with another call. And...Chris all of a sudden got frantic and waved his hands around and said, Take line four! Take line four! And we took it.
CYNDI SHOOK: I’m sort of personal with this case, because I was the first girl Michael Schiavo dated after his wife had her heart attack...
That’s Cyndi Brashers, the woman Michael Schiavo was dating back in 1992…even as he told that malpractice jury that he believed in his wedding vows and planned to take care of Terri for the rest of his life.
CYNDI SHOOK: And he used to go visit her at the nursing home while we were dating…And he said immediately, as soon as he got near the door, her head was already looking at the door because she would recognize his voice, right? And she would start crying when he got ready to leave.
By this time, Cyndi is married and her last name is Shook. She’d been listening to the program...to the other callers siding with Michael Schiavo...and she just couldn’t take it anymore. She had to call in.
CYNDI SHOOK: And he was like, she has ruined years of my life and she has taken all this time and obsessed my whole life with this is all her fault...How long did you date him? About a year.
Cyndi’s call is a bombshell. Immediately, Bob Schindler speed-dials attorney Pat Anderson, who quickly sends a private investigator to Cyndi’s door. Cyndi tells the investigator that Michael told her he and Terri had never discussed end-of-life issues.
Cyndi would later say the investigator misunderstood what she said. Still, Pat Anderson springs into action.
SUZANNE: It was just all of a sudden like a whirlwind, to try to use ...the new information that she had immediately, because now time is of the essence.
Anderson appeals to Judge Greer. Argues that Cyndi’s information is new evidence. Says Terri’s feeding tube must be reinserted pending an investigation. But Greer denies the motion. He says the time for new evidence has come...and gone.
That’s when yet another lawyer enters the scene: Attorney Jim Eckert. At the time, Eckert was the most successful litigator in Pinellas County. When he gets the call from Anderson, he drives down from his second home in D.C.
JIM ECKERT: I told Pat, we had to get a new cause of action...so as to get away from Judge Greer.
Eckert files suit in the court of Judge Frank Quesada, outside Greer’s jurisdiction. The claim? That Michael had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Terri. Then, on the afternoon of April 26th, Eckert and Anderson enter Quesada’s courtroom.
JIM ECKERT: And then Pat Anderson said, Are you gonna make the argument in this case? I said, I didn't drive 16 hours for nothing.
Eckert argues for an injunction against Greer’s feeding tube order.
JIM ECKERT: I don't remember a word of what I said, but I did call Michael Schiavo a murderer, because there was no reason to kill her. None.
The Schindlers are not in the courtroom when Judge Quesada issues his ruling.
BOBBY: We were in my parents living room...
DON RICHARDS: A Pinellas judge issued a temporary injunction ordering Schiavo to resume the use of a feeding tube for his wife Terri…
BOBBY: I remember it was my mom, my dad, Suzanne, my niece...We're just jumping up and down hugging each other...We were in total disbelief. I mean, just a few hours earlier Terri was being starved and dehydrated to death...with no indication that anything was going to stop it….this came completely out of the blue, the new evidence...when the ruling came in, we were just...overjoyed.
After 60 hours without food or water, Terri gets her feeding tube back.
Media reaction is swift. A local radio host gets Michael on the air.
DON RICHARDS: There is no word this afternoon if the attorney for Michael Schiavo will be appealing the latest court decision. In the case of his wife last night, a Pinellas judge issued a temporary injunction ordering Shiavo to resume the use of a feeding tube for his wife Terri is in light of comments from Schiavo’s ex-girlfriend that she was lying when he insisted Terri would not want to remain on life support Schiavo tells MJ Kelly on our sister station 93 FLZ. It's not so.
MICHAEL: I haven't seen or heard from her nine years.
MJ KELLY: Okay, so when you knew her it was Cindy Brasher.
MJ KELLY: And you're claiming that all of her comments that she's made are false.
DON RICHARDS: Meantime ex girlfriend Cindy Shook Brashers supposed to be questioned by attorneys under oath next week…
And that isn’t the end of the story. In fact, far from it…
When Cyndi Shook calls Carrie Kirkland’s show, it kicks off a whole new fight. America—and the world—has only seen the beginning of Schiavo v. Schindler, a case that would become the longest running right to die battle in American history.
Join us for Season 2 of Lawless: The Terri Schiavo Story. In Season 2, The Schindler family digs in…
BOBBY: We're gonna fight this thing. Talk to my family up there, they're they're upset but we're not going to stop.
… Michael Schiavo begins to defend himself publicly…
FELOS: Mr. Schiavo made a resolute promise to his wife…despite the threats and protests and picketing, he's resolute to carry out his wife’s wishes and he's not going to be intimidated.
…and the fight climbs toward the summit of American government. Again.
GRETA VAN SUSTERAN: The US House Committee on Government Reform has filed with the United States Supreme Court a request for an injunction.
And as Terri is dragged back and forth, between life and death, her story opens a fault line that splits the nation.
GLENN BECK: This thing is about to get ugly.
Lawless is a production of WORLD Radio. Our executive producer and sound engineer is Paul Butler. Our production assistant is Lillian Hamman. Music by Will Shehan. Audio support from Creative Genius Productions. Lawless is reported and written by Anna Johansen Brown, Bonnie Pritchett, and me, Lynn Vincent. For a list of additional audio sources in this episode, visit LawlessPodcast.com. Thank you for joining us.
(In order of appearance)
Oprah (November 13th, 2004), VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
NPR, Protesters at Schiavo Hospice Grow Agitated– March 27th, 2005
Youtube video, Terri Schiavo Revisited: Woodside Hospice 3.27.05 by kombatrock
NPR, All Things Considered - 03/19/2005 : Protesters, Parents Won't Give Up on Schiavo
Rosary Army Catholic Podcast RA #4 - Good Friday Podcast (March 28th, 2005)
Bearing Burdens: An Act to Euthanasia on Fatima Today, VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
Glenn Beck, courtesy of Tampa WFLA AM
Court TV Pros and Cons with Nancy Grace Interview (April 12th, 2000), VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
Nancy Grace and Scarborough Country (March 28th, 2006), VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
Cyndi Shook on Carrie Kirkland, courtesy of Tampa WFLA AM
NPR, All Things Considered - 03/19/2005 : Protesters, Parents Won't Give Up on Schiavo
CSPAN video, Open Phones: Terri Schiavo, March 20th, 2005
Channel 2 News, March 30th, 2005, VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
FOX News, On the Record with Greta van Susteren: February 2005, VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
FOX News, Greta Van Susteren: March 18th, 2005, VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
ABC News, Schindler family interview: March 27th, 2006, VHS in Terri Schiavo Archives, Ave Maria University
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.