Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

The Terri Schiavo Case: The Autopsy Report Vindicates Michael Schiavo, But Governor Jeb Bush Re-Investigates Him Anyway


Thursday, Jun. 23, 2005

On March 31, Teresa "Terri" Schiavo died. But the controversy over her case, it turns out, may live on - not only in the media, but perhaps in court, as well.

On June 15, Pinellas County Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin released his long-awaited, thirty-nine-page autopsy report on Terri - a report that included extensive evidence from neuropathologists who had examined her brain and spinal cord.

The report's findings, in general, supported the position of Terri's husband, Michael - as opposed to that of her parents, who had suggested she had shown signs indicating significant brain activity in her last days. It is unsurprising, then, that within hours of the report's release, Terri's parents denounced it as inaccurate. (Florida Governor Jeb Bush, however, has not yet challenged the report, and may never do so.)

In particular, the report showed that, as over a decade of court wrangling had already proved, Terri had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Indeed, the report also found that her brain had atrophied to half normal size, and that she was blind, the visual areas of her brain having been destroyed.

Nevertheless, the autopsy left an opening for politics to once again insert itself into the case - prompting Gov. Bush to instruct the state's Attorney General to investigate Michael Schiavo.

As I will explain, there is no good reason to investigate. Rather, this investigation is simply a continuation of the politics that have always surrounded the Schiavo case, as I argued in an earlier column for this site.

Nationwide, as much as 70 percent of the American people believe that Congress had no business stepping in the Schiavo case in the first place. And now, Americans' message is clear: Let's close the book on this tragic situation, and go on to address all the other pressing issues we must confront. But, apparently blinded by ambition, Gov. Bush is not listening.

A New Mystery: The Cause of Terri's 1990 Collapse

Although it resolved the debate on Terri's condition, the autopsy report, unintentionally perhaps, reopened the debate on the reasons for Terri's collapse on February 25, 1990. That incident stopped her heart and deprived her brain of oxygen for a period of time sufficient to leave her in a vegetative state.

It had been thought by many that Terri had had an eating disorder, bulimia, that had dangerously lowered her potassium levels. But Thogmartin found no evidence of bulimia - a disorder that can, for instance, leave traces on the esophagus. Moreover, like many investigators before him, Thogmartin did not find any evidence of any kind of trauma that could have caused Terri's collapse.

So why did Terri collapse - if not as a result of bulimia or trauma? It's not clear.

And, more to the point, why did her collapse transform her into a PVS patient? Possibly, that result may have been due to the treatment she received, or failed to receive, after her collapse.

It was on this theory that Gov. Bush called on Florida's attorney general to investigate Michael Schiavo, on the speculation that he might have delayed in calling for emergency assistance the day of her collapse.

It's true that Michael gave conflicting times, as much as 30 minutes apart, when asked when he called 911. But as he testified in prior court hearings, that's because he had to estimate. Understandably, he was not looking at his watch when his wife collapsed and he, presumably, frantically tried to get help for her.

Recall the last emergency situation you were in - can you remember exactly when it began, when it ended, or how long it lasted? Doubtless, you remember the sequence of events, but could you reconstruct a timeline? Time can seem to distort in an emergency - with events happening much more slowly than they actually occurred. A quick car accident can seem to take forever, for instance; time can seem to virtually stop.

The New Investigation of Michael Schiavo: An Abuse of Executive Power

Michael Schiavo not only has provided a credible explanation for the different times he gave for his 911 call; he has also been found, repeatedly, by judges, to be telling the truth about issues surrounding Terri's death.

Terri's parents had long accused Michael of causing Terri's initial collapse. Then, after the collapse, they have accused him of abusing and neglecting her in the years between her hospitalization and her death. These cruel charges are rebutted by the fact that Michael tried all kinds of therapy for Terri in the early years after her collapse, none of which helped her.

Florida authorities under the control of, and presumably sympathetic to, Gov. Bush, repeatedly investigated Michael, and found no evidence to support any allegations against him. Governor Bush must be well-acquainted with these prior investigations and their results, as he repeatedly called for them and repeatedly cited them as proof of his concern for Terri. Why, he even called for one more investigation in the last days of Terri's life!

Further, the reports and transcripts absolving Michael of any wrongdoing are repeatedly cited in the very autopsy report that the Governor says prompted him to call for yet another investigation.

Governor Bush Should Confine His Campaigning to the Editorial Pages

This call for a new investigation has nothing to do with the autopsy report. The real motive is ambition - Jeb Bush's political ambition.

But that is no reason to continue to ruin the life of a private citizen whom no court has ever found to have done anything wrong - and who has said, all along, that he only fought to honor his wife's wishes.

Ambition, though, is powerful - and Jeb Bush may aspire to the Presidency. Indeed, according to E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, a source floated to Dionne the suggestion that Republicans are considering a John McCain-Jeb Bush ticket for the 2008 Presidential race. If so, that would set up a possible Jeb Bush run for the presidency - even one as early as 2012, if McCain, who'd then be in his mid-seventies, declined to run again.

Ambitious as he is, Gov. Bush ought to keep his campaigning based on the exploitation of the Schiavo tragedy out of the courts. He is free to use the media to continue to cater to his political base, as he has already done. For instance, last week when the New York Times ran an editorial commenting on the autopsy report and the politics that embroiled both Bush brothers in a family matter, Gov. Bush responded with a fiery letter in his own defense, in which he promised to continue to defend the "rights" of every "vulnerable" citizen.

Gov. Bush should rethink his call for yet one more investigation into Michael Schiavo. After over a decade of litigation, and both state and federal intervention, his efforts to make Terri's husband into a villain--and himself into a hero--have failed.

His outright stubbornness on this issue demonstrates his continuous catering to the extreme elements in the Republican Party. To win higher office - even to gain a spot on that hypothetical McCain ticket - he will have to please moderates as well, and do so by taking on issues that are appropriate for politicians to tackle.

End-of-life family issues are not among them.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology. She is the author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights (Lawrence Hill Books 2004). She maintains a web site devoted to civil liberties issues, Civil Liberties Watch.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard