Mercy.... Or Murder?

The Messengers Make A Hard Choice....

Christmas 1993 was a joyous time for the Messenger family.

Greg, a prominent dermatologist in Lansing, Mich., and his wife, Traci, a full-time mom, were expecting their third child. Their oldest, a boy, was going into kindergarten; their daughter was 2.

The first trimester of Traci's pregnancy was largely uneventful. But, shortly after the holidays, she went into labor, nearly four months early.

Traci was rushed to nearby Sparrow Hospital, where she was given medication to stop the contractions. She had a near-fatal adverse reaction to the drugs.

"And I remember that I held on to the bed rail, and I had no air," she tells 48 Hours correspondent Troy Roberts.

Fearing they would lose both mother and child, doctors were forced to perform an emergency Caesarean section. Before the surgery, the couple was briefed of the risks to a child born in the 25th week of pregnancy.

"They told us 30 to 50 percent of the babies would survive," Greg says.

"And out of that 30 to 50 percent, 90 percent is what she told us will have brain hemorrhages," adds Traci.

The doctors went on to tell them that if the baby did survive, there was a high probability it would be severely disabled.

"That’s when we made the decision," says Traci. Both parents say they were quite clear in their instructions to the doctor. "I said, 'Well, we won't resuscitate if the baby's 25 weeks,'" recalls Greg. "She says, 'OK.'"

Michael Ryan Messenger was born 15 weeks premature, weighing just one pound, 11 ounces. He was quickly intubated and placed on life support against the Messengers' wishes.

"They had my son laying on his back. He had a tube in his throat," Greg says. "He was lifeless, and his arms were stretched out."

Extremely tiny, he fit in the hand of the obstetrician, Greg says, adding, "I thought he was dead."

The prognosis was grim: a 30-50-percent chance of survival. Acting on what they believed was in their baby’s best interest, the Messengers made a decision that no parent would ever want to make -- a decision that would alter their lives forever.

"It was the toughest thing I had ever seen," Greg says. "I repeated my wishes that he be taken off the respirator, and they said they couldn’t do it. And we asked if we could be alone with our son."

Taking matters into his own hands, and without the consent of their doctor, Greg Messenger disconnected the respirator that was keeping his baby alive.

"He reached over and pulled off this one big tube, and he lifted him up and put him in my arms," says Traci. "And I remember just trying to relish the moment, to really take it all in."

One hour after Greg disconnected the life support system, Michael Ryan stopped breathing.

"Losing a child is a tremendous tragedy," says Greg "I’m dealing with it better. I can at least talk about it now. Before I’d get so choked up, I could hardly talk."

The local prosecutor, Michael Ferency, called it murder and charged Greg Messenger with manslaughter, a crime carrying a 15-year prison sentence.

"It just floors you," Greg says of the experience. "It’s like getting hit in the head with a shovel."

The prosecution's key witness was neonatologist Dr. Padmani Karna, who would testify that the couple did request that their child not be put on life support. But she said she had told them of an alternate plan, following hospital protocol.

"We should assess the baby and support the baby at the time the baby is born," she testified. "If the baby is not responding to the treatment or if the baby develops a significant complication, at that point, with parental input, we could always withdraw support."

The parents did not respond, she said. She also told jurors that the baby appeared to be gaining strength.

"She said she wanted to do all sorts of what I call experiments," Greg says, "and we had given directives to the physician assistant not to do any type of painful procedures on our son."

Dr. Karna said that at the time the baby was removed from the ventilator, she did not have sufficient information to assess his condition, so the removal was without her permission.

At his trial, Greg told jurors, "That’s a human being at the end of that respirator, not a machine."

Greg argued that his son’s chances for survival were slim and said, "To say goodbye to my son was the hardest thing I could possibly do. I can honestly say a piece of my heart died right there."

Was it mercy or murder? The jury will decide.

The Result

The jury found him not guilty. In the eight years since the death of Michael Ryan, the Messengers have had two more children and have filed suit against the hospital for malpractice.

Knowing what followed, would they make the same decision today?

"I'd make the same decision," Traci says. "I'd do it in a heartbeat."

"There’s two things in my life that I did that I have a lot of confidence in," says Greg, "and one, is being a physician and two, is being a father. And they were accusing me of making bad medical decisions and being a bad father. I couldn’t accept that."