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Schiavo's death fails to end acrimony over her battle

PINELLAS PARK, Fla.—Terri Schiavo died Thursday, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed, bringing to an end her tragic life, but not the acrimony that surrounded her haunting ordeal and polarizing case.

Michael Schiavo, the husband who'd battled for years to have her feeding tube removed, was at her bedside when she died. Her parents, brother and sister, who'd fought just as hard to have the tube remain in place, were not.

The two sides clashed angrily afterward.

George Felos, Michael's lawyer, said Schiavo experienced "a calm, peaceful and gentle death," sheltered in her husband's arms.

But Suzanne Vitadamo, Schiavo's sister, launched a veiled attack on Michael Schiavo in a statement to reporters.

"Terri is now with God and she's been released of all earthly burdens," Vitadamo said. "After the recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her, she's finally at peace with God for eternity."

Said the Rev. Frank Pavone, a spokesman for Schiavo's parents: "I would not describe this, by any means, as a peaceful death. This was a starvation."

Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, didn't appear in public. Their attorney, David Gibbs III, said: "Their faith in God remains strong. God loves Terri more than they do. She is at peace."

Schiavo had been without food and water since March 18, when the feeding tube she had relied on for most of the last 15 years was removed under court order. She died around 9 a.m. at the Hospice Home Woodside, where she'd been receiving care.

As Paul O'Donnell, a Roman Catholic monk, made the announcement, 12 supporters of her parents fell to the ground outside the hospice. They cried and prayed. Some sang: "How great thou art ... how great thou art."

A trumpeter played "Amazing Grace," and several people sang the hymn.

Becki Snow of Dallas, who'd been fasting since Schiavo's feeding tube was removed, broke her fast with a communion wafer during a Mass conducted outside the hospice.

"I don't feel like we failed—that's the strange part," Snow said. "Terri is known probably to everybody in the world. Terri is the face of thousands and thousands of others who've died in this way."

Several hours after her death, Schiavo's body was taken to the medical examiner's office, where it was to be autopsied. A spokesman said a final autopsy report would be available in about a month. Under Florida law, autopsy reports are public documents.

A statement said the autopsy will include X-rays and an examination of Schiavo's brain. Such details are likely to shed light on the degree of damage she suffered as well as on allegations of abuse that have been leveled in the case.

Schiavo was 41 and her right-to-life, right-to-death case will be remembered as the longest and most aggressively litigated in U.S. history.

It included countless motions in state court, an unprecedented law providing access to federal courts, numerous appeals to the state Supreme Court, and six appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bitterness between the two sides colored the case to the very end.

Pavone and others said Michael Schiavo compelled Bobby Schindler, her brother, and other relatives to leave the hospice room 10 minutes before her death.

"For them to have been escorted out of that room at that minute was unconscionable, unconscionable," said Randall Terry, a right-to-life advocate and Schindler spokesman.

Felos said Bobby Schindler was escorted out of the room as his sister was failing after he refused to leave when hospice employees said they needed to assess Schiavo's condition.

"She had a right to have her last and final moments here on this Earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony," Felos said. "Mr. Schiavo was not going to permit a potentially explosive situation."

Michael Schiavo didn't speak publicly. Two police cruisers were parked outside his house and three "No Trespassing" signs stood on his lawn.

On his mailbox was a small white sign: "Her wishes, what's best for Terri, are being honored by her family." The letter "i" in "Terri" was dotted with a heart.

In Washington, President Bush said Schiavo's case and her death saddened millions of Americans.

"The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak," he said. "In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in favor of life."

Schiavo, who as a teenager weighed as much as 200 pounds but lost 90 pounds through a strict eating regimen, suffered a heart attack in February 1990 as a result of a suspected eating disorder. Deprived of oxygen, her brain was irreparably damaged, and though she could breathe on her own, she was unable to eat. A feeding tube was inserted.

Doctors and her husband said her injury was irreversible and left her in a persistent vegetative state; her parents said she was responsive and should be maintained with nutrition delivered through the tube.

Since at least 1993, her husband—who eventually had two children with another woman—and her parents engaged in legal confrontations over her care. Michael Schiavo said his wife wouldn't have wanted to live in her current condition. Her parents disagreed.

In every instance, the courts backed her husband and refused to support the parents, who eventually were joined in court first by state lawyers and later by federal ones.

The final chapter of the long saga began Feb. 25, when Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer of Clearwater, citing years of previous court decisions, ordered that the tube should be removed at 1 p.m. March 18.

The parents appealed to other state courts and eventually to federal courts, but lost every round. Congress passed legislation to require federal courts to hear the case. But U.S. District Judge James Whittemore refused to order the tube reinserted, saying the Schindlers were unlikely to win. The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at one point sought to intervene, and agents of the state's Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement prepared to take Schiavo into protective custody. But Pinellas Park police refused to let the agents enter the hospice without a court order, and Greer issued an order prohibiting the state from intervening.

In the final days, at least 48 people were arrested outside the hospice as they attempted to take Schiavo cups of water. Some people threatened violence.

With the sun low in the sky and the shadows lengthening, Schiavo's sister urged those people to stand down Thursday evening.

"Threatening words dishonor our family, our faith and our sister, Terri," Vitadamo said. "We would ask that all of those who support our family be completely kind in their words and deeds to others."

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(Long, Bolstad and Merzer report for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Noah Bierman and Cara Buckley of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BRAINDAMAGEDWOMAN

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050331 Living wills

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