SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - Nobody was really surprised that the Michigan parole board this month denied Jack Kevorkian's plea to commute his sentence and release him from prison. But his lawyer, the normally mild-mannered Mayer Morgenroth, was outraged.
"Yes, he is a political prisoner; he has been from day one. If he was anyone else, he would have been released long ago," he fumed. "This is an outrageous and irresponsible action. His health is in dire straits and the prison doctor says he shouldn't be here."
But "here" - the medium-security Thumb Correctional Facility near the city of Lapeer - is where prisoner no. 284797 is likely to stay, at least for now.
Kevorkian, 77, has been in a number of Michigan prisons since being convicted of second-degree murder in April, 1999. If the man who made doctor-assisted suicide a household phrase a decade ago is a political prisoner, he did not start his prison sentence as one, at least not in the usual sense of that term. He openly invited prosecution by performing euthanasia on Thomas Youk, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, videotaping it, and allowing Mike Wallace to show the tape on 60 Minutes. Once charged, he fired his longtime attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, and insisted on mounting an erratic defense himself.
He said he would welcome being convicted, and he was - of second-degree murder. Judge Jessica Cooper indicated she was irritated by Kevorkian's open defiance of the law. "Sir, consider yourself stopped," she told him. She then imposed a penalty of 10 to 15 years, considerably harsher than the sentencing guidelines.
Since then, however, Kevorkian does seem to have been treated in a much harsher manner than typical. "Normally you'd be out in six years with this kind of sentence and no prior convictions," Mr. Morgenroth said. "He would have been out in two years, had [Judge Cooper] followed the usual guidelines."
He was held for awhile in a maximum-security prison in the Upper Peninsula, something unusual for a prisoner of his age, especially given that he had no prior criminal record.
The rules also were changed immediately after his conviction to forbid prisoners to appear on any broadcast media.
Visitors complain of petty harassments. His personal physician, Dr. Stanley Levy, drove to Lapeer to visit him last week, but was denied entry because his name somehow did not appear on a list of approved visitors.
Kevorkian's many pleas for a new trial have been rejected. Technically, he is eligible for parole in June, 2007, but there is no guarantee he will be released then.
Mr. Morgenroth and Dr. Levy say he may not survive that long. The former pathologist suffers from Hepatitis C, which afflicts his liver, high blood pressure, and a variety of other ailments.
"I always said that if they ever get Jack in prison, he isn't coming out alive," said Geoffrey Fieger, who won acquittals for Kevorkian in three nationally televised trials.
Kevorkian's attorneys and supporters are still hopeful that Gov. Jennifer Granholm will overrule the parole board and commute his sentence, even though her press spokesman has said she won't.
The assisted-suicide advocate was once defiant, snapping that he would never stop helping people die, no matter what. By his count, he has assisted more than 130 suicides.
For a while, he vowed to starve himself to death in prison, an idea he soon gave up. Then, years ago, he promised that if released, he would no longer help anyone die.
"I hope Governor Granholm has the courage, but more so the compassion, to set a sickly old man free," Kevorkian told his attorney.
"And those are his exact words I feel for this man. This is a terrible injustice," Mr. Morgenroth said.
Despite his pleas, it seems highly unlikely that Kevorkian will be freed in coming months. Governor Granholm, who is not known for taking risks, opposes physician-assisted suicide.
She also faces a re-election challenge next year from a well-funded GOP businessman, Dick DeVos of Grand Rapids.
While the governor is favored, releasing Kevorkian could give her conservative critics ammunition against her - all the more so if he were to break his word and begin helping people die again.
Mr. Morgenroth said he isn't giving up, and still hopes to persuade the governor to take another look at the case. "In the spirit of this holiday season, I would hope the governor finds the compassion to do the right thing and release Jack," he said.
Nothing wrong with Christmas wishes. But in this case, it would seem likely that Jack Kevorkian will have to wait until next year.
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