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Kevorkian Is Charged With Murder in Euthanasia Case

November 26, 1998|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Granting the wish of right-to-die advocate Jack Kevorkian, Michigan prosecutors charged the retired pathologist Wednesday with first-degree premeditated murder and with assisting in a suicide after he euthanized a terminally ill man whose last moments were broadcast on national television.

Kevorkian also was charged with delivery of a controlled substance, secobarbital, which was part of a death cocktail that prosecutors said Kevorkian could be seen injecting into the right hand of 52-year-old Thomas Youk during a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" segment that aired Sunday.

Kevorkian, who is seeking a showdown over Michigan's law against euthanasia and who challenged authorities to charge him, could, if convicted, be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole on the murder charge, to five years for the assisted suicide count and seven years on the drug charge.

"He brought it upon himself," Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca announced Wednesday. "I am following the law as I am required to do. Not withstanding Mr. Youk's consent, consent is not a viable defense in taking the life of another, even under the most controlled environment."

Kevorkian turned himself in to police in Waterford Township, outside Detroit, after the charges were filed. He was swiftly taken before a magistrate for a bond hearing.

Prosecutors asked that he be held without bail, as he had previously assisted in a suicide while on trial for aiding in yet another. After asking for, and receiving, Kevorkian's word that he would not participate in any deaths before the completion of his trial, Magistrate Robert Crawford ordered him released without bond.

A longtime proponent of physician-assisted suicide, Kevorkian has admitted to aiding in the deaths of more than 130 people, frequently teaching them how to use a "suicide machine" he devised that allows them to inject themselves with a fatal combination of drugs.

The death of Youk, an accountant and amateur race car driver from Waterford Township, marked Kevorkian's first foray into the realm of euthanasia--an apparently calculated effort to test the state's new law against such acts.

The statute, which went into effect Sept. 1, was a response to years of legal provocations by Kevorkian, who has been acquitted three times on assisted-suicide charges since 1990. A fourth trial ended with a hung jury.

On Sept. 17, with Youk in the latter stages of Lou Gehrig's disease and unable to administer the drugs himself, Kevorkian said he gave the injection. He videotaped the scene, as well as prior footage of Youk and his family giving their consent.

CBS aired the segment Sunday night. The program received its highest ratings of the season, with about 15.6 million viewers tuning in to watch Youk die.

"They must charge me," Kevorkian told CBS' Mike Wallace on the program. "Because if they do not, that means they don't think it was a crime."

Prosecutors, who were among those watching the program, did indeed think it was a crime. But on Monday, Gorcyca declared that he would not be "baited" into charging Kevorkian without a full investigation and issued a subpoena for an unedited copy of the video.

After negotiations with CBS' legal department Tuesday, the network volunteered the tape, Oakland County's Chief Assistant Prosecutor John N. O'Brien said.

The package arrived about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. By 10 a.m., several prosecutors and a handful of police officials were gathered around a television set, watching a tape taken over two days at Youk's house that ran about three times as long as the version that aired on "60 Minutes" and filled in details about Youk's death, said O'Brien, who declined to elaborate.

Two hours later, the prosecutors were filing charges.

"We're not concerned with what he wants," O'Brien said when asked if the ever-wily Kevorkian was dictating the path of his own prosecution. "We have evidence of actions that he took, and those actions constitute crimes. Anyone would be prosecuted for the same thing."

As right-to-life groups continued to decry the euthanasia Wednesday, and many debated CBS' prime-time airing of the unsettling footage, some who have generally shared Kevorkian's views expressed concern over this latest death.

In Oregon, the only state with a law that allows physicians to prescribe fatal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients, Barbara Coombs Lee of the Compassion in Dying Federation said that she fears Kevorkian has gone too far.

"I would draw the line--and I think it's a clear line--at having a doctor in control, and having the doctor do the administration" of the drugs, she said. "I think that opens the practice to abuses that cannot be controlled."

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