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Published: Sunday, 3/26/2000

Will history treat Kevorkian more kindly?

PONTIAC, Mich. - A year ago today, I sat with Jack Kevorkian in the basement cafeteria of a suburban Detroit courthouse, where he awaited the jury's decision in a murder trial he had demanded. The prosecutors, who had seen three prior juries acquit "Dr. Death," were worried deliberations were taking too long.

They offered a deal: Plead guilty to manslaughter. He declined with contempt. "Well, an acquittal would be nice, in a way, but I really want a conviction. That'll get it before the Supreme Court, where it belongs," he said.

He soon got his wish. "Guilty of second-degree murder," the jury's nervous foreman said. That night, free on bond until his sentencing, he had dinner at the home of Ruth Holmes, a legal assistant and longtime supporter. "Now I've got them just where I want them," he said.

Well, maybe not.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Kevorkian, the former pathologist who presided over more than 130 assisted suicides and one euthanasia, sits on a cot in a 6-foot by 10-foot cell in the dungeon-like, 1930s-era complex of prisons in Jackson, Mich.

This strange and surprising little man had come out of nowhere in 1990 to become a world celebrity. Now he seems to have been almost forgotten. His appeals seem stalled; the chance the Supreme Court will ever take his case seems small.

Last April 13, a judge, exasperated by his contempt for the rule of law, sentenced Kevorkian to a steep 10 to 25 years. Unless his conviction is overturned on appeal he won't even be eligible for parole until May, 2007, when he will be 79.

Whether he will live that long is far from certain; his blood pressure is barely under control. Nor is it certain a parole board will release him, even then. "I hate to say it, but I don't think they will ever let him out alive," said Geoffrey Fieger, who represented Kevorkian for eight years until his client decided he wanted to be his own attorney.

Last fall the 71-year-old Kevorkian, who had been in a medium-security facility deep in the Upper Peninsula, asked for a transfer to a similar prison in Lapeer, barely 40 miles from his lawyers and few remaining friends.

That's where he thought he was going when they moved him March 13. But instead, to his shock, he ended up in a tiny, ancient cell in what is now called the Egeler Correctional Facility on the grounds of the former Southern Michigan Prison.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections said only that "We have the authority to transfer prisoners, based on their needs and ours." Mayer Morgenroth, the highly respected attorney handling Kevorkian's appeals, was outraged. His client has been a model prisoner, he argues, and there is no reason to treat him this way.

The public's reaction? Deafening silence.

Once, every time the assisted suicide crusader was jailed, throngs protested. Mobs of well-wishers attended his early trials. Polls showed broad support for the quirky man who put the issue on the map. But when the media reported Kevorkian had been taken from a relatively comfortable prison and tossed in a bleak cell, nothing.

I remembered the family member of one of his patients a year ago. She still believed his helping her suffering husband die was the right thing to do. But she had become more uneasy with the suicide doctor's bizarre behavior.

"Now it seems to be more about him than the patients," she said. Which, I think, sums it all up. What went on in the last few years had a lot to do with Kevorkian's own emotional need for attention, and possibly even drive for self-destruction.

Had he stuck to suicide assistance, he would have been remembered as a man who brought about great social change. He had, after all, made it de facto legal in Michigan.

Even claiming to have committed euthanasia might not have led to charges. Prosecutors did not want to take him on. But when he had it shown on national TV, they had little choice. And without the savvy Mr. Fieger by his side, he was doomed.

Nevertheless, it doesn't seem fair to treat this elderly crusader in the same way the system would treat an ax murderer. Kevorkian may deserve prison. But he has never been a threat to anyone who didn't beg to die. History is apt to treat him more kindly. Even staunch opponents admit he did society a service by illustrating the need for greater pain management and spurring physicians to pay more attention to their patients.

Nor has his core issue gone away. Doctors every day do in secret what he did openly. This month, some cable access TV stations are showing Final Exit, an adaptation of Derek Humphry's book. In the video, the author demonstrates how to kill yourself by putting a plastic bag over your head. The baby boomers are aging, and I think we ain't seen nothing yet.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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