Gov. Jim Gilmore's frantic bid to prevent the wife of a comatose man from removing the feeding tube that has kept him alive for 3 1/2 years was rejected by a judge early Thursday.
Michele Finn is now free to withhold food and water from Hugh Finn, allowing him to die. The family said it would not announce when the tube is removed, and no one at the nursing home where Finn lives would say whether it had happened.
Finn, a 44-year-old former Louisville, Ky., television news anchor, ruptured his aorta in a traffic accident in March 1995, depriving his brain of oxygen and leaving him unable to eat, care for himself, or communicate.
In June, his wife told the family she wanted to remove her husband's feeding tube. She said her husband had told her that he would not wish to live in such a condition.
In a dramatic clash over the right to die, Gilmore went to court Wednesday night to stop Mrs. Finn from removing the tube. State attorneys filed their motion little more than an hour before the tube could legally have been removed.
Under Virginia law, life-sustaining treatment may be stopped if a person is in a persistent vegetative state. Doctors have said that is the condition Finn is in, while Gilmore, approached by other relatives of the former newscaster, contends that he is not.
Assistant Attorney General William Hurd argued that removing the tube would amount to euthanasia, but Prince William Circuit Judge Frank Hoss Jr. disagreed in rejecting the state's request.
Hoss said he believes Virginia law allows withholding food and water.
"It merely permits the natural process of dying," he said. "It does not relate to mercy killing or euthanasia."
Meanwhile, protesters gathered outside Finn's nursing home to pray for him, reports Correspondent Mark Ladato of CBS Affiliate WUSA-TV in Washington. Some said that Finn should be allowed to pass away. Others, including a Catholic group, stood to condemn Mrs. Finn's request.
"That's playing God," one protester said. "They say somebody is alive, but it's not convenient for us to take care of him."
Finn's doctor says he has been in the same condition since his car accident, but some family members insist at times Finn has communicated with those around him, and still harbors hope of recovery.
Mrs. Finn expressed outrage at Gilmore's intervention.
"I am more than outraged by the governor and delegate marshal for completely overlooking what the law and the statute is in this state and putting me through sheer hell. I would like it if they would stop," Mrs. Finn said.
The state's top health official contacted members of Finn's family Wednesday evening and asked them to reconsider whether the state should intervene. Hours earlier, the state gave Finn's family a report confirming the diagnosis that Finn is in a persistent vegetative state.
The case became more complicated on Sept. 18 when a nurse employed by the state isited Finn and filed a report saying he told her "Hi" and smoothed his hair during the hour and 15 minutes she watched him.
Mrs. Finn and her attorney contended the nurse was mistaken, that Finn does not really react but simply makes guttural noises and movements.
Mrs. Finn's decision to remove the tube caused a split in the family.
John Finn, Hugh Finn's brother, went to court to stop her. But Hoss ruled Aug. 31 that Mrs. Finn would remain her husband's guardian and had the right to remove the tube. Hoss set a Sept. 30 deadline for appealing his ruling.
John Finn initially said he planned to take the case to the Virginia Supreme Court. But on Monday, the family agreed to end their legal dispute, leaving Finn's wife free to remove the tube when the appeal deadline expired.
Lawyers for the state were to meet Thursday with Gilmore to discuss options for appealing.