Back to 'life' means back to prison cell

By Marie E. Matyjaszek

In this era of the 24/7 news cycle, I think I’ve heard it all and then something else comes along that leaves me even more mystified. That happened recently when I read about Iowa inmate Benjamin Schreiber’s latest journey through the criminal justice system.

Schreiber was sentenced in 1997 to life without the possibility of parole for his conviction of first-degree murder. I’d imagine that this type of sentence leaves one with plenty of time to ponder ways to be magically released from prison.

In 2015, Schreiber fell ill while locked up, and was found unconscious. At the hospital, he had to be resuscitated five times, and was diagnosed with sepsis caused by kidney stones. He claimed that the hospital ignored his “do not resuscitate” order and did so anyway.

Schreiber attempted to use his unfortunate health issues as a ticket out – he claimed that his resuscitations left him “dead,” albeit briefly, and due to his “death,” he’d already served his life sentence. Any further time in prison, he reasoned, was illegal and therefore he should be released immediately! The state won its motion to dismiss in district court, with the lower court noting that “ ‘[t]he petitioner’s filing of these proceedings in itself confirms the petitioner’s current status as living.’”

While Schreiber agreed he was sentenced to life without parole, this sentence was not “‘...Life plus one day.’” Like many prisoners, Schreiber claimed violations of rights enumerated in the Due Process Clause, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Not surprisingly, he had no case law to back up his argument.

The Iowa Court of Appeals didn’t buy what Schreiber was selling, and on November 6, 2019, it opined that the correct reading of the statute required him to “stay in prison for the rest of his natural life, regardless of whether he was resuscitated against his wishes in 2015.” 

The lower court did not err in dismissing his post conviction-relief (PCR) application, the appellate court ruled. The court also stated, “Schreiber is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot.”

Legal opinions are often dry and humorless, but the court got some zingers in when writing this one. A footnote provides more fodder, stating “[g]iven Schreiber appears to have signed his name on the PCR application and his motion for reconsideration – both filed after his ‘death’ – we find this possibility [of his death] unlikely.”

Most people are grateful for successful resuscitation when they are in a life-or-death situation, but it would be unwise to expect that a murderer would value life. Barring a successful appeal, it appears the court has indeed “pulled the plug” on Schreiber’s dreams of release.


The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; the views expressed in this column are her own. She can be reached by email at