Inside the Terri Schiavo case: Judge who decided her fate opens up
By LEONORA LAPETER ANTON | Tampa Bay Times | Published: July 6, 2019
TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The hearing on whether to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was to start at noon.
But Judge George Greer, always punctual, wasn't there. Hours before, he and his wife had packed up their Yorkie, Mr. Bailey, and gotten on an airplane. The Pinellas County sheriff was that worried about Greer's safety.
Schiavo, 41, had been in a vegetative state for 15 years.
Her husband felt it was time to let her go. Her parents and siblings thought she was still in there.
It fell to Greer to decide whether she lived or died.
After his plane landed somewhere in Florida (he still won't say where), he got in a car wearing a bulletproof vest. He pulled out his cell phone, dialing into the hearing at the old courthouse in Clearwater. It was March 18, 2005.
He was about to deliver his final say in one of the most widely disputed end-of-life cases in history.
Greer knew how he was going to rule. That wasn't the hard part.
Thousands of words have been written in law reviews, bioethics journals, newspapers and books about the fight over Terri Schiavo.
In 2006, her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, brother Bobby Schindler and sister Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo published "A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo – A Lesson For Us All." The same year, Michael Schiavo, her husband, wrote (with help from Michael Hirsh) "Terri: The Truth."
More books followed by a group of bioethicists from the University of Pennsylvania; lawyers for the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo; even Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles detective who investigated O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
But it's taken years for Greer to tell his story.
He recently wrote the first chapter in "Tough Cases," a book that features the reflections of judges who don't often get to speak openly about their decisions. In the book, and a subsequent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Greer explained some of what had gone on that wasn't reported as the court drama played out.
Terri Schiavo's case provoked action from the governor, the president and the pope, and almost resulted in a constitutional crisis. It drew anti-abortion, end-of-life and disability rights protesters to the road outside her hospice window. It changed Greer's life.
Greer grew up in Dunedin, then got his bachelor's degree in 1964 from Florida State University, where he lived for a semester in a house with Jim Morrison before the singer found fame with the Doors.
He earned his law degree from the University of Florida and became a zoning and land-use lawyer in Clearwater. He served as a county commissioner from 1984 to 1992, when he was elected circuit judge, which was his dream.
In 1999, he shifted to the probate division, which handles wills, estates and guardianships. A few months later, Michael Schiavo's petition ended up on Greer's docket.
Greer realized quickly that his job was to figure out what Terri Schiavo would have wanted. Essentially, he had to become her.
Terri had grown up in a Roman Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs. As a teenager, she wore her hair feathered, had a high-volume laugh and weighed as much as 250 pounds.
By the time she met Michael in a community college class in 1983, she'd dropped about 90 pounds with dieting. They married a year later and in 1986, moved to St. Petersburg.
Terri got a job with Prudential Insurance Co. and dropped more weight. Michael worked as a restaurant manager. They were trying to have a baby, but she stopped getting her period regularly.
When she collapsed on Feb. 25, 1990, on the floor of her apartment, her collarbone and ribs protruded as the paramedics tried to kick-start her heart with defibrillator paddles. She weighed about 110 pounds.
At the hospital, doctors discovered a potassium imbalance, a symptom of bulimia nervosa. The eating disorder combines binge eating and vomiting.
It seemed to offer an explanation for Terri's heart stopping, as well as her weight loss. But it would never be determined with medical certainty.
About two weeks later, Terri's neurologist concluded that she was in a persistent vegetative state and would remain essentially unconscious and unaware for the rest of her life.
But Terri's family had seen her open and close her eyes, cry and smile, hold up her head and turn it, follow their voices. Was she really gone?
Michael took her to California for experimental brain stimulation that didn't work. He sued Terri's fertility doctors for failing to detect her low potassium levels and, after paying the lawyers and court costs, received a $300,000 settlement for his loss and more than $700,000 for her care.
At first, he and his in-laws lived together to save money and made joint decisions. But their relationship deteriorated when Michael transferred Terri from a rehabilitation facility to a nursing home in Largo and refused to split his portion of the settlement with the Schindlers.
On Valentine's Day, 1993, they exchanged words at Terri's bedside and stopped talking.
Five years later, when Michael petitioned to have the feeding tube removed, he said he was trying to keep a promise to Terri, who hadn't wanted to be kept alive by artificial means. He'd also met someone else.
The Schindlers asked Michael to let them take over Terri's care. He refused.
Their feud steamrolled toward Greer, a Republican who had attended the same Southern Baptist church for 35 years.
He had never before been asked to withdraw life support.
Greer first had to figure out if there was any likelihood of recovery.
At the trial in January 2000, a neurologist pointed to a CT scan that revealed Terri's brain had atrophied. The ventricles were nine times the size of a normal brain, the doctor said, and filled with spinal fluid. He called her condition irreversible.
Ten years before, the Florida Supreme Court had decided in another case that someone with brain damage holds "a fundamental right to the sole control of his or her person" and is not required to accept medical treatment or be force fed.
Terri left no living will, so the law required Greer to figure out what she would have wanted based on what she told family and friends.
Michael Schiavo said that while watching a show involving life support, she specifically told him she didn't want to be kept alive that way. Terri's mother recalled discussing Karen Ann Quinlan with her daughter. Quinlan, 21, collapsed one night in 1975 after dieting and consuming sedatives and alcohol and slipped into a vegetative state. Her parents wanted to disconnect life support, but the doctor refused. Terri's mother recalled that Terri didn't want Quinlan to die.
Greer felt Terri's expressions to her husband as an adult held more weight, and Florida law gave Michael more decision-making power than her parents.
On Feb. 11, 2000, he granted Michael Schiavo's request.
Lawyers for the Schindlers appealed, so the tube remained in place.
The legal battle would stretch on for another five years. An appellate court ordered Greer to hold a second trial, to consider whether new medical treatment might have changed Terri's mind.
Over and over, in October 2003, Greer watched a two-hour video that showed Terri's mother and one of the medical experts hired by the family attempting to coax responses from Terri. She opened her eyes and closed them, moaned or grunted, seemed to track a Mickey Mouse balloon with her eyes.
Greer counted 111 commands and 72 questions and only a handful of responses.
Several doctors said Terri's brain stem, which controls sleep and wake cycles and breathing, was still functioning. But her upper brain, which controls purposeful movement and thinking, no longer worked. So what people saw were only her reflexes.
In the end, Greer decided, again, to let Terri die.
That's when Jeb Bush got involved. Terri's father had pleaded for the governor's help.
The Florida Legislature passed Terri's law, which provided the governor with "the authority to issue a one time stay to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration."
Six days after Terri's feeding tube was pulled, Bush signed an executive order to reinsert the tube. Half a year later, in May 2004, a circuit judge overturned Terri's law, saying it was unconstitutional because it violated Florida's separation of powers rule and her right to privacy.
In March 2005, Greer ordered Terri's feeding tube pulled out for the third time, from that car after his plane landed.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered outside the courthouse and Terri's hospice in Pinellas Park. One car pulled a life-size statue of Jesus on a cross. Others carried large wooden crosses and signs with the Ten Commandments. Later, some protesters would be arrested for trying to bring Terri water.
They called Greer a murderer.
More than 100,000 sent emails condemning his ruling.
"There were all sorts of emails and phone calls with people saying, 'you will not live through this' or 'you should be dead,' " recalled Ron Stuart, the former public information officer for the Sixth Judicial Circuit.
Around this time, Greer's pastor wrote him a letter, suggesting he resign from the church and hoping that he would "find a way to side with the angels and become an answer to the prayers of thousands."
Greer disappointed a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, which had sought to intervene and delay carrying out his decision. He told a congressional lawyer: "This is not your issue."
That afternoon, a priest sprinkled holy water on Terri, and the tube was removed one last time, the wound closed. By then, her hair was flecked with gray.
The following Monday, at 1:11 a.m., President George W. Bush signed a law passed by Congress over the weekend that allowed "in certain cases" for a federal court to review a final state court decision. But a federal judge denied the request by Terri's parents to invoke the new law and keep Terri alive, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case.
Two weeks later, on March 31, 2005, Terri died from dehydration.
On a warm day in late May, Greer opened the opaque glass double doors of his Island Estates waterfront condo. His wife was in the bedroom watching Seinfeld. A Yorkie mix named Gator hopped around the room with a view of the Intercoastal Waterway.
Greer is 77 now, retired after 18 years as a circuit judge. His other notoriety came when he presided over the Hulk Hogan divorce.
He still works as a mediator and drove to Broward County last year to play a judge in an upcoming movie called Waves, starring Sterling K. Brown.
He knows his decision in the Schiavo case has come to define him. As one expert put it, Greer was the fulcrum, the person most responsible for controlling the chaos, and it was a difficult job.
Three shifts of deputies stood watch over him and his wife every day for half a year; boats patrolled the water in front of their condo.
He pulled out the bulletproof vest from the back of a closet. For six months, he wore it every time he went outside, even to walk the dog.
Someone paid a florist to deliver dead flowers to his wife with a note: "no food ... no water."
The FBI arrested a man in North Carolina for writing an email that offered a $50,000 bounty for "the elimination of the judge who ruled against Terri in Florida."
He was asked to remove himself from the case seven times. He said no each time.
Sitting on his pale blue sofa, Greer looks like he could handle all this and then some. A balding man with an angular face, he says what appears on the surface is not what's below.
"As a judge, my job is to keep calm," he said.
But then he observed: "I don't remember being under stress."
He did recall a spark of fear when he saw then U.S. House Majority leader Tom DeLay on TV calling Terri's death a murder and Greer "barbaric." For a second, he worried if federal marshals would take him down to Guantanamo. That moment made him think about how an "overreaching" government can make a man feel very small.
The Schiavo case, Greer argues, was not only an emotional debate about a brain-damaged woman's life, but "an epic test of our country's separation of powers." It also illustrated for him what can happen when one party has all the control.
For Greer, it was not about faith, and it stung to be ostracized from his church, Calvary Baptist in Clearwater. (The church declined to comment.)
He had taught Sunday school and coached his church's basketball and softball teams. He'd been married and baptized there, as had his wife and twin sons.
The Bible was written thousands of years before life support, Greer said. God's law is "a higher law," he said, but God gave humans the power of self-determination.
"We determine as mankind and as a nation how we should conduct ourselves," he said.
Terri's case was about the right to control your own destiny, Greer said.
"I couldn't figure out why anti-abortionists cared about the Schiavo case," Greer wrote in Tough Cases. "There's no unborn person here. None of it added up, until a few years later."
In 2004, Greer was presented with another petition to withdraw life support. This time, it was for a male lawyer who was, like himself, married with two kids. When Greer ruled in favor, the courtroom was almost empty.
"Right at the same time the whole world seemed to be focused on Terri Schiavo, no one made a peep," he said.
Dr. Robert L. Fine, who has written a number of journal articles on end-of-life cases and is clinical director of ethics and palliative care at Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, said Schiavo became the cause celebre for those who believe you should always fight for life.
Jay Wolfson, Terri Schiavo's guardian ad litem, said he was struck by the challenge facing Greer, a devout Christian and political conservative with a job to do that was perhaps in conflict with his own beliefs.
"He did what the judicial system is supposed to do," said Wolfson, now a senior associate dean at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. "He independently applied the law."
David C. Gibbs III, an attorney for the Schindlers, did not respond to requests for comment. But he criticized Greer in his 2006 book, Fighting for Dear Life.
"For reasons I still do not understand, Judge Greer refused to go and meet Terri Schiavo, watch her interact with her mother or call her as a witness in his courtroom – even though he was assigned with the task of deciding Terri's ultimate fate," wrote Gibbs.
Greer said he knew he wouldn't have been able to assess her condition, so instead, he relied on videos where the experts worked with Terri.
But Greer said making the decision was not hard. The law required him to do what Terri would have wanted.
Her autopsy revealed that her brain tissue had largely been replaced with spinal fluid. Her optic nerve had disintegrated. To Greer, this was affirmation that Terri was not actually seeing that balloon or her mother.
But he has thought a lot about life after a catastrophic health event.
Once, when he went to accept an award at the Boston University Law School, Greer spoke with a professor in a wheelchair who was on a respirator.
The man said he never thought he'd want to live that way, but he had changed his mind.
It didn't make Greer question his rulings in the Schiavo case, but it did make him ask himself: "what do we really know on this side of tragedy?"
Six years ago, Greer's wife, Gail-Patricia, developed sepsis and went into a medically induced coma. He sat by her bedside for five weeks. Doctors couldn't tell him if she would live or die.
"I've been in control virtually my entire adult life," he said, "and in this situation, I was out of control."
He was frightened. He thought about Terri and her family.
Then, on Day 36, his wife opened her eyes and said his name, and he felt relief.
Tampa Bay Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Information in this story came from interviews with Greer, his wife and his friends; William L. Allen, associate professor of the program for bioethics, law and medical professionalism at the University of Florida; Chief Medical Examiner Jon R. Thogmartin's autopsy report and State Attorney Bernie McCabe's report on Terri Schiavo sent to Jeb Bush; the 2003 report of Jay Wolfson, Schiavo's guardian ad litem; the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine's Terri Schiavo project collection; news reports and several books, including A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo – A Lesson For Us All by the Schindler family, Terri: The Truth by Michael Schiavo and Michael Hirsh and Fighting for Dear Life by David C. Gibbs III, attorney for the Schindlers.
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