Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Tampering with a witness, or destroying evidence ...

You call it. But it's one or the other.

Terri Schiavo has languished in what her husband claims, with the support of some doctors, is a "persistent vegetative state," since 1990. Hold that thought. We'll be back to it in a minute.

At the time, Michael Schiavo sued for an insurance settlement. His stated purpose in doing so was to provide for his wife's care for the remainder of her natural lifespan. Since then, however, he's launched various efforts to have her feeding tube -- she can't swallow on her own -- removed so that she'll starve to death. He's refused to turn over guardianship to others. He doesn't want a divorce. He wants her dead.

Why? Here's an article explaining some of the possible reasons. Suffice it to say that a bone scan of Terri's body taken in 1991 indicates that she underwent severe trauma more indicative of taking a beating which knocked her unconscious than of taking a fall after becoming unconscious.

There are several ways to approach this whole thing. The easiest way -- but one which has so far proven signally unsuccessful -- is to produce evidence that Terri isn't a "vegetable." In other words, that she reacts intelligently to stimuli, can differentiate between people, expresses preferences and otherwise conducts herself as a person, not a piece of animated meat with no mind. The case against the notion that Terri is "brain dead" is pretty much airtight. There's no reasonable criterion upon which she could be so declared.

Unfortunately, the courts don't seem to want to accept, or even test, that case. They're operating on the presumption that the diagnosis of brain death which her husband has produced is valid ... and that since she is, for all intents and purposes, dead, her body might as well be allowed to expire with whatever said courts regard as the "her" that no longer exists.

That, however, opens up a different line of reasoning which I haven't yet seen pursued. Let's assume, for a moment, that Terri Schiavo really is in a "persistent vegetative state." That she's a vegetable. That she is, legalistically speaking, dead.

OK. So ... what killed her? Where's the death certificate, and what is the listed cause of death? What? You say there isn't one? That there's been no coroner's investigation or autopsy?

Well then. What we have here, folks, is evidence. And what do you do with evidence? You preserve it, of course. You preserve it in the best condition possible until such time as it can be examined (in the way least likely to alter it) to determine what it reveals.

If Terri is alive, to kill her would be murder, and it therefore should not be done. If her injuries were due to an attack by her husband -- or by anyone else -- it would also amount to tampering with a witness.

On the other hand, if Terri is dead, the automatic functionings of her own body, sustained by a feeding tube, are the best preservative of the evidence of the cause of her death -- and killing that body, or allowing it to die, would constitute the destruction of evidence as to the cause of her death.

Either way, justice demands that Terri -- or, if we ignore the evidence that Terri is still there, Terri's body -- be kept functioning. Anyone who demands otherwise is attempting to commit, or is abetting the attempted commission, of a crime of one sort or another.

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