On the crowded stage where the melodrama about Terri Schiavo is played, Richard Pearse Jr. had a smallish role.
The Clearwater lawyer served as Schiavo's guardian ad litem for a year, from the middle of 1998 to 1999. His job was to represent the young woman's interests in one of the hearings where Schiavo's husband sought removal of her feeding tube.
Pearse investigated her case. He interviewed her relatives. He read the medical records.
Then, in December 1998, he recommended to the judge that the feeding tube remain.
His reasons have become familiar to us all:
Terri Schiavo's own wishes were unclear.
Her husband had a substantial conflict of interest, Pearse said. If the tube were removed and she died, Michael Schiavo stood to inherit $700,000 left over from a malpractice settlement. Pearse also was troubled by Schiavo's conduct. He had stopped trying to get therapy for his wife after the money came through, Pearse said.
Pearse also noted that Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had a potential conflict. If Michael divorced his wife and the Schindlers took over her care, they would stand to inherit the $700,000.
Pearse's recommendations went into the thick file of the Schiavo case. January 2000 brought a weeklong trial. When it ended, Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer drew other conclusions. Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, he said. There was no doubt of that. Her feeding tube could be removed.
I went back to Pearse earlier this week because the feeding tube is still the issue of the hour. The intervention of the governor and Legislature saw to that.
I wanted to test the strength of my own opinions. Was I wrong to side with Michael Schiavo?
Was I missing something more clear to somebody on the inside of the case, like Pearse?
Well, yes, I was. I didn't know that Pearse's views had changed since 1998. He no longer opposes the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.
Most of the medical testimony, given at trial and after Pearse issued his recommendations, concluded she would never recover.
The primary reason for Michael Schiavo's conflict of interest is gone. Only about $50,000 of the original $700,000 settlement remains. The rest reportedly went to Terri Schiavo's care and legal fees.
The case itself has been closely scrutinized by judge after judge, and their findings have been unanimous. The judges thought they knew what Terri Schiavo would have wanted.
They also found Michael Schiavo credible. Even with a conflict of interest, Pearse said, he could be right about his wife's wishes.
One day, this all must stop.
Pearse has a word for what is needed.
That's what courts are supposed to provide, Pearse said. They are supposed to sort through our biggest disputes and put them to rest.
Once the governor and Legislature stepped in and pushed through Terri's Law, the courts were denied their usual role.
Pearse called the law stunningly bad policy.
Note to the GOP: Pearse is a Republican.
He predicted, as others have, that Terri's Law will be struck down as unconstitutional, a case of unequal protection under the law. The concept means that it's illegal to give Terri Schiavo a right that others don't get. Terri's Law was written to cover her situation and hers alone.
The fight now is on two fronts.
In one court case, Michael Schiavo mounts a challenge to Terri's Law, before Pinellas Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird.
The other battle is before Judge Greer, as it has been for years. Terri Schiavo's parents are asking, as they have repeatedly, for the ouster of Michael Schiavo as his wife's guardian. Like Pearse, the rest of us can only watch.
_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.