Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A leading player in the Terri Schiavo debate is a Florida judge whose fame began five years ago when he ruled that no compelling evidence showed Mrs. Schiavo wanted to be kept alive.

Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer, 63, has held firm on that ruling, despite a sea of death threats, angry e-mails, phone calls and criticisms from disability rights groups and others that he is biased in favor of Mrs. Schiavo’s husband, Michael Schiavo.

Sympathetic profiles in two local newspapers noted that he must retain sheriff’s deputies as bodyguards against protesters who dog his steps.

“We think the judge tipped the scales by disregarding witnesses against Michael Schiavo,” said Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group based in Forest Park, Ill., that has filed several friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the brain-damaged woman.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., group of lawyers who say Mrs. Schiavo should not be left to die, says Judge Greer has set a bad legal precedent by basing a life-or-death decision on uncritical acceptance of the word of Mr. Schiavo on his wife’s wishes.

“Here we have hearsay evidence from Michael Schiavo that she didn’t want that kind of treatment,” said Jordan Lorance, senior counsel for ADF. “It is a violation of due process for the judge to discontinue her feeding on such slim evidence.”

“Plus, we have a witness, her husband, who has a conflict of interest, being the main source of evidence. If a judge makes such an extreme ruling based on thin evidence, then Florida law needs to be changed.”

Judge Greer has refused suggestions from friends and opponents alike that he recuse himself from a case that is likely to define his career. During the 2004 election cycle, George Felos, the lawyer for Mr. Schiavo, sent him a campaign contribution of $250.

A petition asking the state legislature to impeach the judge, who was easily re-elected to the 6th Judicial Circuit Court in November as a Republican, has 28,267 signatures on

His February 2000 ruling about Mrs. Schiavo’s wishes set the stage for the drama being played out now at the Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., where Mrs. Schiavo is on the brink of death after having her feeding tube removed March 18.

Mr. Schiavo claimed then that his brain-damaged wife had told him she would not have wanted to live in what’s been called a “persistent vegetative state,” a change from his earlier testimony during a 1992 medical malpractice lawsuit, when he said his wife could live up to 50 more years.

Opponents say the judge has confounded parents Bob and Mary Schindler at every turn by continually issuing court rulings in favor of Mr. Schiavo and against the Schindlers’ claims that their daughter would have wanted to live.

“My family is distressed and frustrated,” Mrs. Schiavo’s brother, Bobby Schindler, told reporters last week. “We don’t understand why the courts are adamant that my sister die.”

Miss Coleman said that at a 2003 trial, also presided over by Judge Greer, testimony was split between three doctors who said Mrs. Schiavo was in a “persistent vegetative state” with no hope of recovery and two who said she was not.

“Research has shown that PVS is 30-40 percent misdiagnosed,” she said. “Judge Greer’s order found that her responses were inconsistent, so he went with the three who said she was PVS. We feel that was a violation of her due rights.”

As the controlling legal authority, the judge has continually upheld Mr. Schiavo’s side of the case, even as late as March 22, when he refused a request from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to take Mrs. Schiavo into protective custody.

The state agency cited evidence from two other neurologists saying the woman had been misdiagnosed and that she is in a minimally conscious state.

Nevertheless, the judge refused a new request from the family to reinsert Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube while she was being examined by the state. He also instructed Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies to prevent the DCF from taking her into custody.

The case has had some impact on the private life of the judge. On March 17, Judge Greer withdrew from Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater after its pastor, the Rev. William Rice, asked him to clarify whether he was still a member.

According to the Baptist Press, the pastor contacted Judge Greer after the judge criticized the church in a March 6 article in the St. Petersburg Times.

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