Today’s correspondent has referred me to an article in the New York Times headed ‘A Prisoner Who Briefly Died Argues That He’s Served His Life Sentence’.  The gist of the argument is that the prisoner who suffered a cardiac arrest had died, and therefore his sentence had ended, even though he was resuscitated. The article says the argument ‘was not without precedent’ but that doesn’t make it any less axiomatically stupid.  A person standing in a court room is not dead.

My correspondent asks, whether in Australia, a ‘life sentence [would] be over following a period of being clinically dead?’ The answer is categorically ‘no’.

But rather than dismiss it for the stupidity it is (noting it’s the argument that’s stupid, not the correspondent who asked the question given someone has in fact suggested it) we can look at some law.  The law in every Australian state and territory says that death has occurred when there is ‘irreversible cessation of function of the person’s brain’ or ‘irreversible cessation of circulation of blood in the person’s body’ (Transplantation and Anatomy Act 1978 (ACT) s 45; Human Tissue Act 1983 (NSW) s 33; Criminal Code (NT) cl 1; Transplantation and Anatomy Act 1979 (Qld) s 45; Death Definition Act 1983 (SA) s 2; Human Tissue Act 1985 (Tas) s 27A; Human Tissue Act 1982 (Vic) s 41; Interpretation Act 1984 (WA) s 13C).

The key word is ‘irreversible’.  A person who has a cardiac arrest is having a medical emergency. They may or may not be dead. Because we cannot know we encourage people to perform CPR, used AEDs and call for assistance. If the person is resuscitated to return of spontaneous circulation the ‘cessation of circulation of blood in the person’s body’ was not irreversible and they were not dead.  If it was never reversible it may be that CPR and other treatment were administered to a dead person.

Death is a permanent state of affairs. If you are dead you are dead for the rest of time. You cannot be dead and then not dead (Zombie apocalypse excepted). The prisoner in the US was not dead; he was nearly dead. If a prisoner in Australia has a cardiac arrest and is resuscitated, he or she is not dead. They have never been dead; they have been critically unwell. If they are not dead, they are still under sentence and remain under sentence until they are dead.