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Dr. Jack Kevorkian dies at 83; 'Dr. Death' was advocate, practitioner of physician-assisted suicide

Former Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian claimed to have assisted in the suicides of more than 130 terminally ill people between 1990 and 1998. He served eight years in prison for second-degree murder after he administered a lethal injection himself.

June 04, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

In 1997, the Detroit Free Press reported the results of its investigation into the lives and deaths of 47 people whose deaths had been publicly linked to Kevorkian since 1990. The paper said Kevorkian's assertions that he followed strict guidelines for physician-assisted suicide, including consulting psychiatrists to determine a patient's mental state, "do not hold up."

The investigation also showed that "at least 60% of Kevorkian's suicide patients were not terminal. At least 17 could have lived indefinitely and, in 13 cases, the people had no complaints of pain."

In an effort to curtail Kevorkian's assisted suicides, the Michigan Legislature passed a bill in 1992 that temporarily banned the practice.

Two years later, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that assisting in suicide was a crime, based on common law. And in 1998, a new state law made assisting a suicide a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine.

By then, Michigan prosecutors had charged Kevorkian four times with assisting suicide. But the cases ended in three acquittals and a mistrial.

In 1998, Kevorkian was charged with first-degree murder after he personally gave a fatal injection to Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old accountant from a Detroit suburb who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Kevorkian videotaped himself injecting Youk, then gave the tape to the CBS News program "60 Minutes," which broadcast the footage.

In an accompanying interview with Mike Wallace, Kevorkian said he made the tape to move the public debate from physician-assisted suicide to euthanasia — death directly triggered by a doctor — and dared prosecutors to charge him with a crime.

Prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder, which requires premeditation.

During a brief trial in Michigan in 1999 in which Kevorkian defended himself, he appealed to the jury to send a message that laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide were unjust.

In 1999, the white-haired, 70-year-old Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

"You had the audacity to go on national TV, show the world what you did and dare the prosecution to stop you," Oakland County (Mich.) Circuit Judge Jessica Cooper told Kevorkian after sentencing him. "Well, sir, consider yourself stopped."

After serving eight years, Kevorkian was released from prison in 2007, with one of the conditions of his two-year parole being that he not conduct any more assisted suicides.

In an interview with the New York Times two days after his release, Kevorkian proved to be as fiercely combative as ever, complaining that during his time in prison no new laws had been passed that would allow assisted suicide.

The government, Kevorkian said, was "the tyrant" and the public were "sheep." As for his severest critics, he said they were "religious fanatics or nuts."

During the peak of his notoriety in the 1990s, the eccentric, Bach-loving Kevorkian revealed other sides of himself.

He was a jazz musician and composer, who played flute and organ on a limited-release CD performed with the Morpheus Quintet and featuring his own compositions, "The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life."

And, more in keeping with his Dr. Death image, he was an oil painter of surrealistic, often gruesome, canvases depicting medical conditions and social commentary — paintings of what Vanity Fair writer Jack Lessenberry described as "such merry scenes as a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse and Santa crushing a baby in a manger."

Kevorkian, who wrote a number of books, ran as an independent candidate for Michigan's 9th Congressional District in Oakland County in 2008; he received less than 3% of the votes.

In 2010, Al Pacino delivered an Emmy Award-winning performance as Kevorkian in the HBO biopic "You Don't Know Jack."

"He turned away the vast majority of people who came to him, he didn't take money for what he did, and he did not see these patients as people he was killing," Pacino told the New York Times before the film's premiere. "He saw them as people whose pain he could relieve."

Asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper at the time if he regretted taking up a cause that sent him to prison, Kevorkian replied: "No, why would I?"

Kevorkian is survived by his sister, Flora Holzheimer.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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