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Wednesday, December 10, 1997

Wendland to live

COURT VICTORY:  Florence Wendland, left, mother of Robert Wendland, is embraced outside of court by daughter Rebekah Vinson on Tuesday after a judge's decision to keep Robert Wendland on life-support.  At right is attorney Janie Hickok Siess, who represents Florence Wendland.

"If I must err, I am going to err on the side of caution.  It is necessary that I choose life.
... I don't know at this point whether here today I am preserving Robert's life or whether I am sentencing him to life."

- Judge Bob McNatt

SUPPORTING LIFE:  Ken Owen, left, Dana Cody, and the Rev. Hans Wiersma demonstrate Tuesday outside the san Joaquin County Courthouse.  Wiersma is reading a statement from a woman whose husband had a similar condition to that of Robert Wendland.

Judge rejects plea to end Stockton man's life support

By Kimi Yoshino
Record Staff Writer

Robert Wendland should not be allowed to die by disconnecting the feeding tube that has kept him alive for four years, San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt declared Tuesday.

The surprise ruling cut short a high-profile trial monitored by medical and legal scholars across the country.

 Robert              Rose

"I feel that this is the absolutely wrong decision for all the right reasons," McNatt said.  "I entertain a strong suspicion that Robert would have wanted to die."

But McNatt said a strong suspicion is not enough evidence to end the 45-year-old Stockton man's life as requested by Wendland's wife, Rose Wendland, the couple's three children and his court-appointed attorney, Deputy Public Defender Doran Berg.  They did not -- and could not -- meet their clear and convincing burden of proof under California law, McNatt said.

If McNatt had allowed Wendland's life-sustaining feeding tube to be removed, it would have been a first for a California court.  No judge has endorsed withdrawing life support from a person in Wendland's condition, conscious but unable to communicate because of serious brain damage from a 1993 car crash.

Wendland's mother, Florence Wendland, and sister Rebekah Vinson, who fought since July 1995 to keep him alive, met McNatt's decision with relieved tears.

"We are on top of the world," Vinson said.  "We are going to relax for the first time in 2 1/2 years."

Rose Wendland, who testified that her husband did not have a living will but had told her he would not want to live without being a "father, husband and provider," sat in stunned silence and quickly left the Stockton courtroom without comment.

McNatt described Rose Wendland as one of the most selfless and devoted wives he has seen, but he said that to rule in her favor, he would have to extend the bounds of California law.

"If I must err, I am going to err on the side of caution.  It is necessary that I choose life," McNatt said.  "I am not ready to start down that slippery slope without some form of guidance."

The ruling, which McNatt predicted would be appealed, came 1 1/2 hours after the court day usually ends and before Wendland's mother and sister presented their case.

Elements of the case have been considered by the state Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court.  The case also has grabbed headlines in national magazines, won attention on Internet bulletin boards and aired on the TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC."

During the trial, Rose Wendland testified that she asked in 1995 that her husband be allowed to die because he had shown little significant improvement since a September 1993 traffic accident.  He was driving drunk, and his car overturned off an Interstate 5 onramp at Highway 12.

He has spent nearly four years at Lodi Memorial Hospital West, in a medical state that many found difficult to describe.  One doctor testified Tuesday that Robert Wendland is "minimally conscious."

Though Robert Wendland is able to perform some simple tasks, such as identifying a colored peg and propelling a wheelchair with his foot, Rose Wendland has said those are not meaningful enough functions for her husband to live.

Her motives, she has said, were to fulfill his whishes and allow him to die with dignity.  Family members had testified that Robert Wendland was a man who enjoyed boating and spending time with his children and hated being dependent on others.

At least six doctors and ethicists who had testified in the nearly two=month trial said Robert Wendland has little chance for meaningful recovery.  They agreed it is ethically appropriate to let him die.

Berg, appointed to be an independent voice in the highly emotional proceedings, closed her case Tuesday, stating she is convinced that Robert Wendland told his wife he would want to die.  She declined comment Tuesday evening.

Rose Wendland also declined comment, but her attorney, Stephen Scott, said he was "absolutely shocked" by McNatt's decision.  He said he does not know what their next step will be.

McNatt's early ruling came as a surprised because Florence Wendland's attorney, Janie Hickok Siess, had not yet begun to present her case that Wendland should live.  She argued Tuesday afternoon that neither Scott nor Berg had presented adequate evidence and urged the judge to rule on the case on those grounds.

"I'm very pleasantly surprised," Siess said.  "Robert is going to live.  He is not going to be starved and dehydrated to death."

Though McNatt ruled in favor of sustaining Robert Wendland's life, he said the case probably will continue to haunt him in the early morning hours as it has many nights over the past two years.

"I don't know at this point whether here today I am preserving Robert's life or whether I am sentencing him to life," McNatt said.