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Schiavo never had appropriate legal representation, court told

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)–Urging the court to not rush into a life-and-death situation at the hands of an “overzealous” attorney, a lawyer for Terri Schiavo’s family argued Jan. 28 that she has never been given her constitutional right to an independent attorney, something that should happen before she is literally starved to death by a court order.

The woman at the center of the legal debate, Terri Schiavo, 41, has been in what some doctors consider a persistent vegetative state since 1990, when she collapsed in her home. She is currently fed through a feeding and nutrition tube twice a day.

Schiavo’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, asked the court in 2000 to be allowed to discontinue feeding his wife, whom he says would wish to die.

The disabled woman’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have long argued that Terri has never received the rehabilitation needed to learn to swallow and to improve her condition.

Nutrition and hydration has twice been discontinued and subsequently restored after court intervention.

In court Jan. 28, attorney David Gibbs III of Seminole, Fla., asked Circuit Judge George Greer to void the 2000 order which led to both life-threatening instances.

Currently, a stay is in place while the Second District Court of Appeal decides whether to reconsider an appeal to last fall’s Florida Supreme Court decision which ruled a law to resume feeding Terri was unconstitutional.

In that case, the Florida legislature in 2003 passed legislation called “Terri’s Law” which gave Florida Gov. Jeb Bush permission to order healthcare workers to continue to feed Terri.

At the Jan. 28 hearing, Greer refused to comment on the stay except to say he would wait to see what the appeals court was going to do before making any decision.

Articulating his message to Greer at the Jan. 28 hearing, Gibbs initially said Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, had no standing in the case since he had not previously chosen to respond to Gibbs’ motion to void the order.

Though Felos was allowed later to present an argument about why he thinks the motion should not proceed, Greer told Gibbs he would consider further arguments about Felos’ presence at a later date.

Gibbs said Terri Schiavo had not been given due process under the law because she did not have independent counsel at any time during the proceeding that would ultimately decide whether she lives or dies. He also argued that the separation of powers is in jeopardy when the judiciary is solely responsible in deciding the outcome of such a critical issue.

Several times at the hearing, Gibbs urged the judge to make sure, whatever the outcome, that Terri Schiavo has her day in court.

“I urge the court not to rush,” Gibbs said. “There is not reversibility once Terri Schiavo has been starved and dehydrated to death.”

After Felos repeatedly called the motion to void “outrageous” and “frivolous,” Gibbs told the judge that it would appear Felos was tired after years of litigation and “overzealous” activity in the case.

After listening to both attorneys, Greer gave Gibbs until Feb. 7 to submit more written legal arguments and said, pending the need for more time from Felos, he would render a decision Feb. 11 on whether the court would proceed with the due process issue.

Outside the courtroom, Gibbs told reporters he believes even criminals are afforded the due process rights of independent counsel.

“We believe … Terri Schiavo, the woman with the most to gain, the most to lose, the woman whose life is in jeopardy, the woman who we all know will die by starvation and dehydration if the court’s ruling continues … was never represented by legal counsel.”

Gibbs reiterated his counsel to the court, saying, ‘It’s imperative that we get this right.’

Joining with Bob Schindler, Gibbs also made public a settlement offer he said Felos had refused last October.

The offer, previously a private matter between the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo, would release Terri to her parents who would care for her and give up any claim to any legal action or property.

“[The Schindler family] is going forward and leaving it on the table … if [Michael Schiavo] would please, please, please, just walk away and let the mom and dad take care of the daughter they love,” Gibbs said.

Schindler said he hasn’t given up yet, despite a mountain of court rulings against the family.

“I believe that right prevails,” Schindler said. “I think that there is some integrity left and some morality left.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan