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THE NATION

Suicide doctor paroled after 8 years

Jack Kevorkian says he will no longer help patients to die but will work to change laws.

June 02, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Jack Kevorkian -- considered a remorseless murderer by some and a compassionate physician by others for helping patients commit suicide -- was released on parole Friday from a Michigan prison after serving eight years.

The frail 79-year-old, wearing his familiar light-blue cardigan and a tie over a button-down shirt and dress slacks, walked slowly out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Mich., and grinned cheerfully.

Telling a crowd of reporters outside the detention center that leaving prison was one of the "high points of life," the retired pathologist once dubbed "Dr. Death" waved as he and attorney Mayer Morganroth stepped into a white van and drove away.

In December, the Michigan Parole Board granted Kevorkian's request to leave prison early -- after eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder -- because of his good behavior and a promise not to conduct any more assisted suicides.

But Kevorkian, who has heart and lung disease and hepatitis C, plans to keep fighting state laws that prevent physician-assisted suicide.

"He has been clear: He will not break the law. But he will do what he can to change it," Morganroth said.

Kevorkian, who will be on parole for two years, is expected to check in with his parole officer weekly. Though he is allowed to publicly advocate his views, state corrections officials say, the physician cannot help others build the so-called suicide machine he had used in the past.

Kevorkian, who plans to live with friends in the Detroit area, has been offered public speaking engagements, "which he is considering, as he has bills to pay and only expects to receive a modest pension," Morganroth said.

In 1998, Kevorkian was charged with murder after injecting lethal drugs into Thomas Youk, 52, a man with Lou Gehrig's disease from Oakland County in Michigan. Youk's death was recorded on a home video that Kevorkian sent to the CBS news show "60 Minutes," which broadcast it. In the tape, Kevorkian dared the legal system to stop him.

It did. He was convicted of second-degree murder.

At the time, Kevorkian claimed he had assisted in at least 130 suicides of terminally or chronically ill people.

Before Kevorkian's arrest, hundreds of people flocked to Michigan to meet with him. He was heralded by some right-to-die proponents as a brave leader who was willing to sacrifice his own freedom to fight for terminally ill Americans' right to choose the time of their death.

But as Kevorkian more aggressively challenged law enforcement, many of his longtime supporters began to distance themselves. They sought to divert the focus of the debate from his espousal of assisted suicide to a more politically moderate push for an active role for patients in their own end-of-life care.

On Friday, critics were infuriated at the pathologist's early release.

"This is a man who is known to have killed more people than any other person in Michigan's history, and he's being set free two years early," said Paul A. Long, vice president of public policy for the Michigan Catholic Conference, the church's official public policy arm in the state. "He's promised that he would not break the law. But he made those promises through the 1990s, and he never lived up to them."

Some in the national right-to-die movement express nervousness about what Kevorkian will do.

"He was a profound symbol of the covert and clandestine process of dying. But we don't really need that kind of championship these days," said Barbara Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit that helps people get and use life-ending drug prescriptions. "What we need are sane, rational laws."

Only Oregon has a law that allows people, under specific circumstances, to obtain a doctor's prescription for a lethal drug dose. A similar bill was defeated in the Vermont Legislature this spring.

Next week, the California Assembly is expected to vote on the Compassionate Choices Act, which would let people with less than six months to live who have been declared mentally competent to get drugs that they would administer themselves. Similar legislation has been introduced twice in recent years. But a lack of support, and strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other critics, helped defeat the legislation.

"Californians should have this freedom to choose what they want," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), one of the bill's authors.

"Terminally ill people are ending their lives already. We're not talking about whether it happens. We're talking about how it happens."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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