April 23, 2024

Dead man walking?

It sounds like the premise for a Stephen King novel, but it’s real life. Benjamin Schreiber, a 66-year-old man, is serving a life sentence for murder in an Iowa prison. Back in 1996, he bludgeoned a man to death with an axe handle. In 2015 he suddenly became seriously ill, so ill that he lapsed into a coma and “died”.

But he recovered. Disappointed that he was still alive, he appealed to have his life sentence voided as it had already “expired”.

It’s an intriguing argument. Can you live two lives? Are you the same person after being resuscitated? Or are you literally a dead man walking?

Unfortunately for Schreiber, the court took a dim view of his request.

“We do not find his argument persuasive,” wrote a judge this week. She concluded: “Schreiber is either still alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is actually dead, in which case this appeal is moot.”

This ruling will allow the citizens of Iowa to sleep easier at night, but philosophically isn’t a bit naive in the way it addresses the problem of identity? Isn’t it possible that Mr (1996) Schreiber is dead and that Mr (2019) Schreiber is a different person? If S(2019) identifies as a dead person, shouldn’t we accept his carefully considered opinion?

Michael Cook
A fascinating court case