Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

'Dr. Death' to be paroled, but can he be trusted?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - This was probably Jack Kevorkian's one chance to get out of prison - standing up, that is.

This was the one time Gov. Jennifer Granholm could agree to let him go with minimum political risk. She just won a second and final term by a landslide. The lame-duck legislature is wrapping up its final session. Sure, some would criticize her decision to permit the parole of the man who made assisted suicide famous.

But that was bound to be blunted by the spirit of the season. This is the time of year for charity, when everyone thinks of being home with family. (In fact, "Dr. Death" won't be released till June 1.) The former pathologist's lawyer, Mayer "Mike" Morgenroth, insists that his 78-year-old client is very sick, with a multitude of ailments, and has probably less than a year to live.

According to both Mr. Morgenroth and state authorities, Kevorkian has sworn he will never break any laws again, and now says that he did not go about it the right way, and should have worked to change the system legally.

But that isn't the Jack Kevorkian I knew for the six years that I covered his many trials for The Blade, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair.

That Kevorkian was defiant, revolutionary, and contemptuous of society and the legal system.

Seven and a half years ago, when he was convicted of second-degree murder, he sneered at the entire legal process. "Now I've got them where I want them," he told me in April, 1999, just a few hours before being sentenced.

He expected public rage at the injustice of his jailing for what he plainly saw as an act of compassion in which the state had no business interfering. There was no doubt that Thomas Youk was terminally ill. He was a 52-year-old man with advanced Lou Gehrig's disease, and sought Kevorkian out.

That was in September, 1998. Had Dr. Death merely helped him commit suicide, nothing would have happened. Detroit-area prosecutors, after losing case after case, said they would no longer charge him. What he did was de facto legal.

However, that wasn't enough for him. He insisted Mr. Youk agree to euthanasia; he videotaped it, and gave the tape to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, which aired it Nov. 22, 1998.

Kevorkian then taunted prosecutors. "If he doesn't charge me, I'll do another one on his front steps," he told me. He then fired his longtime lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, and announced he would represent himself, something that turned out to be legal suicide.

To everyone's shock, then-Oakland County Circuit Judge Jessica Cooper gave him far more time than recommended. Noting that he had said the law couldn't stop him, she said "Sir, consider yourself stopped." He grinned as he was led away.

He thought that outraged citizens would demand his release. But nothing of the kind happened. All but a few of his supporters melted away. "We realized that this was all more about his emotional needs than the lives of the patients," the sister of one of the 130-plus people he said he helped told me.

Kevorkian also vowed that if he wasn't soon released, he would die via a hunger strike. But when push came to shove, he changed his mind about that, too. "He is killing Kevorkian so that Jack can live," said an outraged former supporter and quasi-girl friend, Fuensanta Plaza. She no longer speaks to him.

"Prisoners don't get to hold press conferences," John Skrzynski, the prosecutor who won the conviction, said the day he was sentenced. Indeed, Kevorkian was not allowed to do broadcast interviews. He was gradually forgotten.

People asked if he had died. To some extent, he was a victim of his success; doctors were clearly paying more attention to pain management issues.

And times had changed. The economy was roaring and peace and prosperity seemed perpetual when Jack Kevorkian dominated the headlines. Almost nobody knew the name Osama bin Laden when his cell doors swung shut.

But nobody wanted to think about suicide of any kind after Sept. 11, 2001. By then, only a few friends and Mr. Morgenroth kept fighting to get him out of jail. One of those, oddly, was Mike Wallace, the hard-bitten CBS reporter whose reporting put him in there, but who came to see him as "clearly a political prisoner."

Now, he is going to be free again, an elderly post-celebrity. Without any doubt, he'll be on all the major network shows.

But then what? Dying, suffering, and sick people are bound to call or write to him. He once said "I'll never let any law get in the way of my physician's duty to help relieve irremediable suffering."

Perhaps he is now too old, too frail, and too wary of prison to ever be tempted to do so again. But what if, a year from now, he decides to help someone, despite his promise? What if he concludes he again needs to jump-start the end-of-life debate?

That's something Jennifer Granholm hopes she'll never have to face. Usually risk-averse in her first term, she's taken a gamble on compassion. As for the rest, time will tell.

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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