A legal case involving the potential euthanasia of a Lafayette man in a vegetative state is gaining national attention.

At odds are the man’s wife and mother, who have been arguing in court, via social media, and on "Dr. Phil" over who should have legal authority over Joshua Barras' life and death. The situation has also piqued the interest of a nonprofit started by the brother of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose case captured the nation in 2005 as her husband was granted the right to remove the woman's feeding tube against her parents' wishes.

On the surface, the Lafayette conflict appears to be between a wife who is ready to let go and a mother who refuses to give up hope. Those who have followed the story closely, however, are raising flags about who truly has Joshua Barras' best interests at heart.

Social media following

Broussard resident Maegan Adkins Barras gained an instant online following in February 2019 after she was wrongfully arrested and jailed for posting a video of a high school fight on social media. The district attorney's office did not prosecute the case, and Maegan Barras later sued the Scott Police Department and Lafayette Parish School System in federal court for infringing on her rights and causing mental anguish. After all, she spent time in the same jail where her husband, Joshua Barras, had attempted to kill himself a few months earlier in November 2018. Maegan Barras said at the time that she only posted the video because she was concerned the student may have suffered head trauma. She said the fight concerned her because her husband had suffered brain damage months earlier when he used a shoelace to hang himself in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.

Maegan Barras received a $70,000 settlement — $50,000 from the city of Scott and $20,000 from the school system — in August 2020 as a result of the federal lawsuit.

She also sued the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office and jail in October 2019 in federal court over her husband's injuries from his suicide attempt. The lawsuit alleged that jail employees acted against policy when they left Joshua Barras alone for 20 minutes in a bathroom. It also alleged that they knew Joshua Barras had a history of suicidal behavior when he attempted to kill himself inside the jail bathroom. That case is still open and appears to hinge on the outcome of the state court case that's gaining national attention.

The case unfolding in the 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette concerns the guardianship of Joshua Barras. Initially, Judge Jules Edwards granted Maegan Barras' request as tutor over her husband in June 2019. His mother, Kelly Barras, was named undertutor.

In April 2020, Maegan Barras filed an amended petition through her attorney to designate herself as curator instead of tutor, a legal technicality that appears to have been spurred by the federal lawsuit over Joshua Barras' suicide attempt.

Tutorships and curatorships are essentially the same thing: the legal appointment of a guardian to manage the financial affairs and day-to-day life of someone who is unable to do so because of age or mental limitations. A tutorship is granted when the person in question is a minor, and a curatorship is granted for an adult.

Maegan Barras was designated as the curator of Joshua Barras in May 2020, but Kelly Barras was not designated as the undercurator.

Upon learning of the case a few months ago, the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network connected Kelly Barras to the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which is paying for her attorneys.

Schiavo's 2005 case is similar to the one currently unfolding in Lafayette. The woman's parents fought in Florida courts to keep their daughter alive in a persistent vegetative state while Schiavo’s husband pushed to remove the feeding tube that had sustained his wife for seven years. In 2005, her husband won the legal battle and Schiavo died.

“I have to say this case is very, very much like the Terri Schiavo case and other cases that we’ve handled," said Alexandra Snyder, CEO of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, in a May video about Joshua Barras' situation. "And I don’t know what it is, but in most of these cases, it’s the spouse who wants to kill the patient, and the family, either the parents or siblings, or both, who want to keep that patient alive.”

Through her attorneys, Kelly Barras on March 18 filed a motion that challenged Maegan Barras as Joshua Barras’ legal caretaker along with a preliminary injunction asking that a restraining order be issued to prevent Maegan Barras from taking any actions that would end Joshua Barras’ life.

"This is an extremely urgent matter requiring the judge's immediate attention," Felix Sternfels, Kelly Barras' former attorney, wrote in a letter to the court. 

'Thoughts and prayers'

Maegan Barras had been candid on social media about her plans prior to her mother-in-law's motion, collecting more than 500,000 followers on TikTok along the way. Maegan Barras intended to move her husband from a nursing home facility to her house to let him die.

Presented as evidence in the case are screenshots from Maegan Barras' Facebook posts.

“Thoughts and prayers for our Joshua Barras as he comes home to spend his last days in the comfort of his home, with his loved ones by his side,” one Facebook post said. “We watched him suffer, day by day. To see him slowly fade away, and could not give relief. His weary hours and days of pain. His troubled days and nights are past. And in our aching hearts we know. He will finally rest at last.”

Judge Valerie Gotch Garrett, who took Edwards' seat this year, issued a temporary restraining order on March 30 that prohibits Maegan Barras from taking Joshua Barras out of a nursing home, removing his feeding tube or altering life-sustaining measures.

The case hasn't progressed much since then after multiple hearings were rescheduled — once when Maegan Barras replaced her attorney, once when Joshua Barras was exposed to others with COVID-19 and, most recently, on Friday when Kelly Barras replaced her attorneys.

Maegan Barras’ previous attorney, L. Clayton Burgess withdrew from the case in early April. Burgess wrote in his note to the court he was withdrawing because this has become a “right to life” matter instead of a personal injury lawsuit.

Burgess, who represented Barras in the other two lawsuits, declined to comment for this story. Maegan Barras' new attorney, Sean Stockstill, did not return phone calls and emails.

Those in support of Kelly Barras had been counting down the days to the next hearing, which was scheduled to happen Monday.

On Friday, they learned the hearing was postponed yet again after Kelly Barras notified the court that she would replace her previous attorneys, Felix Sternfels and Amos Cormier III, with Todd Gaudin.

Gaudin declined to comment for this story, and Sternfels did not respond to requests for comment.

Cormier said in a July 8 interview prior to his replacement that the court should respond favorably to Kelly Barras' request for guardianship over her son.

"The court should take into consideration who really has the best interest of Joshua at heart because the curator has power when it comes to administering the state of his assets," Cormier said. "Of course, this isn't as much money as Britney Spears, but it could be a good chunk of change."

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Questioning motivation

Money. That's what a group of online amateur investigators allege is driving Maegan Barras to end her husband's life. It's also what Joshua Barras' mother alleged on a March episode of "Dr. Phil."

Joshua Barras, 37, attempted to hang himself with a shoelace in November 2018 in a Lafayette Parish Correctional Center bathroom during the booking process after he was arrested on drug charges, according to court and police records. The man was discovered unconscious about 20 minutes later and taken to a local hospital, where his family learned he had suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen.

Prior to the suicide attempt, Maegan and Joshua Barras had a rocky relationship that's documented in arrest and court records. They first married in 2015 and would later accuse each other of domestic abuse before filing for divorce the same year. They remarried in 2016. Maegan Barras filed for divorce again in March 2018 but withdrew the request in a November 2018 letter to the court a few days after Joshua Barras attempted to kill himself.

Maegan Barras posted regularly on social media about her husband's brain injury and even hosted at least one online fundraiser in his name before her February 2019 arrest that made national headlines.

After her arrest, Maegan Barras began posting more regularly about Joshua Barras and started hosting more fundraisers through websites such as GoFundMe and asking for donations through apps such as Venmo. Initially, she was asking for money to pay for treatments not covered by health insurance, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy. In recent months, however, she said she was raising money for Joshua Barras' funeral expenses.

Kelly Barras said on a March episode of "Dr. Phil" that Maegan Barras is exploiting Joshua Barras on social media for her own financial gain.

"Just putting this out on social media, she's had a venue where she could raise more money," Kelly Barras said on the talk show. "His care is completely paid for through Medicaid. There's really nothing that we need to purchase. Her followers do attack me. She has convinced them that he is in decline, which he is not. Some of her followers are saying I'm selfish for wanting my son to stay alive. I would like her followers to know everything that they believe about the story is a lie."

Maegan Barras said on "Dr. Phil" in March that Joshua Barras can only cough, breathe and blink; he’s having daily seizures and contractions; and his muscles and joints are tightening. She said his “body is literally shutting down” and “like a newborn.” Kelly Barras said her son is minimally conscious and responds with aggravation when his mustache is shaved or his nose is wiped and he could improve with the appropriate care.

"It's the brain that was damaged," Maegan Barras said on the talk show. "So, basically, if Kelly says that his body is healthy, why let him go? That's just keeping his body there when he's not there mentally. So why is that fair or OK for him when that's no quality of life? That would be for her comfort to see him, like I've discussed with her before. This would be us being selfish."

Patient progress reports shown on "Dr. Phil" indicated Joshua Barras was in a persistent vegetative state with little change from February 2020 to February 2021. Videos that Maegan Barras has posted online show Joshua Barras in a vegetative state, although he occasionally appears to smile or grunt in response to others. 

Kelly Barras did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. 

Maegan Barras, who reached out to a reporter earlier this month to cover the story, did not answer multiple phone calls or return calls . Instead, she sent brief text messages to a reporter over the course of more than a week.

"I just know whatever I say its still going to look wrong because my previous lawyers misfiled so much," Maegan Barras wrote in a July 11 text. Two days later, she wrote: "I'm just overwhelmed."

Facebook followers

Although Maegan Barras has attracted more than half a million followers on TikTok, Kelly Barras has gained a loyal following in recent months on Facebook.

There are more than 2,000 members of a Facebook group called Justice for Josh Barras. Many of the members were initially influenced by Maegan Barras' TikTok videos.

Laura Clark and Sara Evens are among those.

Clark, who lives in Georgia, said she was moved by Maegan Barras' story on TikTok about six months ago because her nephew suffered from a brain injury after a 2002 car crash. After years of intensive therapy, Clark's nephew learned how to walk and talk again. He now lives independently, works two jobs and gives motivational speeches.

Clark said she reached out to Maegan Barras to let her know about what treatments worked for her nephew and offered to help schedule appointments for Joshua Barras. Clark said she told Maegan Barras not to get her hopes up, but at least she would know whether there was a chance for her husband's recovery and could show his mother the lack of results before removing his feeding tube.

"After days and days of trying to help her, she turned on me on a dime. She said she felt pressured by me and she wished people on the internet would just leave her alone. It was weird," Clark said in a phone interview.

Evens, of Indiana, also initially learned about the case through Maegan Barras' TikTok videos. Evens said Joshua Barras appeared to be trying to communicate in the videos she watched on TikTok. 

"The more she posted on TikTok, the more something just didn't sit right with me," Evens said in a phone interview. "It wasn't just me that felt like this. She was saying that Josh has never had any treatment and that she couldn't get him any treatment. We started seeing more about it and learning more, and we questioned what she was saying and started looking into it on our own."

Clark and Evens allege Maegan Barras is motivated by the pending federal lawsuit against the jail and hasn't used money raised as stated in fundraisers — for treatment for Joshua Barras. 

To support those claims, Clark provided screenshots from more than a dozen fundraisers that raised a combined $15,000 and shared screenshots from a recent private message in which Maegan Barras asked someone for money and shared a photo of a negative balance in a bank account.

The Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Information office gives recommendations to people who believe someone is using a crowdfunding website to scam others out of money. Among those include warning others by commenting on the crowdfunding profile and reporting concerns to the state attorney general and FTC.

Clark said she isn't interested in pursing criminal charges against Maegan Barras. She said she's just gathering documentation to help Kelly Barras win legal authority over her son.

Evens said nobody, including Kelly Barras, wants to see Joshua Barras continue to live in his current condition. She said the primary goal is to get Joshua Barras treatment to see if he responds before choosing whether or not to end his life. 

"His mother is absolutely not wanting to leave him like this," Evens said. "Her sole purpose of wanting to get guardianship is so that he will get the treatment, the therapy that Maegan isn't getting him."

Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.