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For the Defense of Dr. Death

Geoffrey Fieger Has Been Dr. Jack Kevorkian's Attorney for 6 Years. Is It a Divine Mission or Madness? Actually, He Makes It Sound Like a Little of Both.

November 10, 1996|SHERYL JAMES | Sheryl James is a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press

Once again, the reporters pilgramaged to the Southfield, Mich., law offices of Geoffrey Fieger, the man who keeps Jack Kevorkian out of jail. Once again, on this hot August afternoon, they knew pretty much what to expect. Fieger has called these command press performances with numbing frequency since 1990, when Kevorkian assisted his first suicide, Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old, Portland, Ore., woman with Alzheimer's disease.

Fieger usually put on a good show, and this day's promised to be real entertainment. Boston newspapers had just reported that Judith Curren, Kevorkian's 35th (as of this writing, they number 44) assisted suicide, allegedly had been a victim of domestic abuse and that her medical ailments were neither terminal nor, the medical examiner was suggesting, real. Curren, a 42-year-old nurse from Pembroke, Mass., had been found to have fibromyalgia, a painful muscle disorder, chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndromes. An autopsy showed only that she was obese. The not-so-subtle implication, Fieger said, Curren was done in by Kevorkian and her husband, Franklin.

In the six years since the Adkins assisted suicide, Jack and Geoff, as the Michigan press calls Kevorkian and Fieger, have won acquittals for Kevorkian in three trials resulting from his assisted suicides; had one murder charge against Kevorkian dismissed; challenged successfully a poorly written assisted suicide ban that expired before Kevorkian stood trial for violating it; beat an attempt to prosecute Kevorkian under Michigan common law; and ignored an injunction barring Kevorkian from assisting any more suicides. They have seen their most determined opponent, hard-nosed Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson, who ordered two of Kevorkian's three trials, lose to an underdog in the Republican primary in August. They have celebrated public promises by both of Thompson's possible replacements not to waste more taxpayers' money on another Kevorkian trial. The war was won, it seemed. Until Judith Curren.

Fieger, broad-shouldered and bronzed, strode into his law office library and lowered his 6-foot-2, 225-pound former lineman's body into a chair. He looked up, his blue eyes adorned by daddy-longlegs eyelashes, smiled his perfect, pearl white smile and began a minutes-long monologue.

"Thank you all for coming. I wanna go over Judy Curren's physical health and her desire to end her pain and suffering after nearly 20 years of horrendous pain and agony." Fieger blasted the Boston newspapers, released letters Curren had written to Kevorkian, begging for help. He ripped Oakland County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. L. J. Dragovic, who had ruled Curren's death a homicide, as Dragovic always does when one of Kevorkian's assisted suicides is an Oakland County resident, as the majority have been.

"'Does Dr. Dragovic have no shame?!" Fieger demanded. "This was her [Curren's] decision. What does it take with you people? Why do you repeat these lies? It is an outrage!" Fieger was nearly shouting now. "I dare 'em to take us to trial! I dare Thompson to charge us! Without a law! Let's do it again, let's waste some more of the taxpayers' money. Or else shut up. I'm through with it!" In the end, Kevorkian was never charged with any crime in the Curren case; her husband vigorously denied that her death had been anything other than a suicide.

No one argues that Jack Kevorkian brought the issue of assisted suicide out of the closet, took the risk and faced the consequences. But it is Geoffrey Nels Fieger, a 45-year-old Detroit-area native, who has shaped and directed this debate, won the big victories and rubbed it in whenever he could. He has shown up at Kevorkian's suicide scenes to threaten police, boss the media, or bail Kevorkian out of jail; orchestrated Kevorkian's acquittals; and run to the rescue whenever a Curren case comes along. He has been the perfect foil, it seems, for the bizarre and sometimes comically ineffective efforts by Thompson and the Michigan legislature to stop Kevorkian. As one judge remarked: "I don't know of anyone else who could have gotten three acquittals."

In Kevorkian's third trial--in April, for the assisted suicides of Marjorie Wantz, 58 (No. 2, severe pelvic pain) and Sherry Miller, 43 (No. 3, multiple sclerosis)--prosecutors relied on a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that Kevorkian could be charged with violating Michigan common law, even though there was no specific statute on assisted suicide when Kevorkian helped Wantz and Miller die. (The court cited a 1920s case in which a man helped his ill wife kill herself. No law at the time addressed assisted suicide, either, so the Michigan courts ruled the act a homicide as defined by 1800s English law.) Fieger pounced. "You want to see the law in Michigan on assisted suicide?" he declared. "Here it is." And he held up a poster-sized blank page. Kevorkian walked.

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