Jack Kevorkian Trials: 1994-99
Jack Kevorkian Trials: 1994-99
Defendant: Dr. Jack Kevorkian
Crimes Charged: Assisted suicide, murder, delivering a controlled substance for administering drugs without a license
Chief Defense Lawyers: 1994 and 1996: Geoffrey Fieger, Mayer Morganroth; 1999: David Gorosh, Lisa Dwyer
Chief Prosecutor: 1994 and 1996: Richard Thompson, Lawrence Bunting, Michael Modelski; 1999: David Gorcyca, Daniel L. Lemisch, John O'Brien, John Skrzynski
Judge: 1994: Thomas E. Jackson; 1996: David Breck, Jessica Cooper; 1999: Jessica Cooper
Place: Pontiac, Michigan
Dates of Trials: April 19-May 2, 1994; February 20-March 8, 1996; April 16-May 14, 1996; March 22-26, 1999
Verdicts: 1994 and 1996: Not guilty; 1999: guilty of second-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance
SIGNIFICANCE: The name Dr. Jack Kevorkian—also known as "Dr. Death"—has become synonymous with the subject of doctor-assisted suicide. By helping the desperately ill to determine their own fates, Kevorkian has forced the courts to tackle the issue of whether assisted suicide should be an option in some instances. Court ruling based on laws unclear on the subject, as well as Kevorkian's continuing to assist those wanting to die, prompted legislative action by the state of Michigan—and indeed, elsewhere in the country.
In June 1989, 53-year-old Janet Adkins of Portland, Oregon, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease—the nation's fourth-leading cause of death, which manifests itself as the irreversible deterioration of brain cells. A Renaissance woman, Janet had taught English and piano, taken up hang gliding when her three sons were grown, traversed the mountains of Nepal, and climbed Oregon's highest peak, Mount Hood. Determined not to put herself or her family through the agony of Alzheimer's, she began to plan her own death.
When Adkins heard about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a 62-year-old pathologist in Royal Oak, Michigan, who had invented a suicide device, she got in touch with him.
Dr. Kevorkian was known among medics as an eccentric. Officials had forced him out of his residency at the University of Michigan Hospital in 1958 when he proposed medical experiments on death-row prisoners. Since 1982, his ideas on euthanasia had prevented his getting an appointment in a hospital. But, he was still licensed to practice medicine in Michigan and California.
Over several weeks, Kevorkian talked frequently with Janet. He ascertained that her determination to kill herself was clear. But, in Oregon, causing or assisting a suicide was a felony. Michigan had no such statute.
In June 1990, Janet Adkins and her husband flew to Michigan. Over dinner, Kevorkian explained the suicide procedure. Over the next two days he tried to find a motel, funeral home, or vacant office to permit Janet Adkins's suicide on its premises. He explained that he had to tell them what he was doing so they wouldn't sue him later for emotional distress. All efforts failed. Finally, he drove Janet in his own rusty 1968 Volkswagen van to a campsite that had electrical hookups. He attached an electrocardiogram to monitor Janet's heart; next he inserted an intravenous needle into her arm to drip harmless saline solution. Then, as Adkins pressed a button on the machine, stopping the saline and starting the thiopental, which induced unconsciousness, she said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." A minute later, the machine switched to potassium chloride, which stopped Adkins's heart. The doctor called 911 and, when the police came, told them what he had done. Within hours, his name was being heard in households across America.
The Public Debate over Assisted Suicide Begins
Four days later, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found 53 percent of Americans said a doctor should be allowed to assist an ill person in taking his or her own life. But Judge Alice Gilbert of Michigan's Oakland County Circuit Court ordered Kevorkian to stop using his machine. Talk shows, newspaper and magazine editorials and Op-Ed pages, nursing homes, medical and legal societies all vibrated with the debate over the ethical issue. "I'm trying to knock the medical profession into accepting its responsibilities," explained Kevorkian, "and those responsibilities include assisting their patients with death."
In December, Oakland County prosecuting attorney Richard Thompson charged Kevorkian with first-degree murder. But, Oakland County District Court Judge Gerald McNally found no probable cause that the doctor had committed murder, because Michigan had no law against assisting suicide.
The prosecutor asked the court to forbid Kevorkian to regain possession of his "death machine" from the police, build another like it, or help anyone else build one. Defense lawyer Geoffrey Fieger argued that, since the doctor had been cleared of criminal charges, the prosecution had no legal basis for its request. On February 5, 1991, Judge Gilbert ruled that Dr. Kevorkian could no longer use the machine.
Two days later, on February 7, the doctor told reporters he intended to use the machine again. In October 1991, in a remote cabin outside Pontiac, Michigan, he helped two women kill themselves. One, who had multiple sclerosis, used a somewhat different intravenous device. Instead of pushing a button, as Janet Adkins had done, the MS victim had two strings attached to her fingers. She pulled the first to activate the anesthetic. Then, as she lost consciousness, her falling arm pulled the second string to start sending sodium Pentothal, a poison, into her system. The other woman, who suffered from a pelvic disease, breathed carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas. Upon hearing of the deaths, Judge McNally commented to an AP reporter, "There is a place for this in society. You can't put this in dark alleys or cabins."
Michigan Suspends Kevorkian's License
Within a month the eight-member Michigan Board of Medicine suspended Kevorkian's license indefinitely. The suspension, they hoped, would make it impossible for him to get or prescribe lethal drugs and, if he again assisted a suicide, would expose him to the criminal charge of practicing without a license.
Dr. L.J. Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner, ruled that both women's deaths were homicides because "suicide is reserved for self-inflicted death" and "all the evidence indicates these deaths were brought about by another person."
In February 1992, the doctor was indicted on two counts of murder and one of delivery of a controlled substance. Free on $15,000 bond, Kevorkian advised a California dentist by telephone and mail on how to kill himself with a suicide machine. The dentist did in fact proceed with his suicide.
On May 15 in Clawson, Michigan, Dr. Kevorkian provided the canister of carbon monoxide as another multiple sclerosis victim killed herself. Again the medical examiner ruled homicide. On July 21, Michigan Circuit Court Judge David Breck dismissed the earlier murder charges, saying the doctor had merely assisted the suicides, which was not illegal in Michigan.
September and November, 1992, brought two more Kevorkian-assisted suicides. This prompted Michigan's House of Representatives to vote, 72-29, to ban assisted suicide for 15 months while a state commission studied the issue. "It's a bill against one person," said the doctor. "It's like we're still in the Dark Ages."
The ban was to begin March 30, 1993. In January and February, Dr. Kevorkian helped eight more terminally ill patients commit suicide. Each time, the police confiscated the doctor's paraphernalia. And each time he built a new machine. Incensed, the Legislature passed a hurry-up ban for Michigan Governor John Engler to sign on February 25.
The Severely III Ask Kevorkian for Help
The public debate grew intense. California suspended Kevorkian's license. From all over America, the hopelessly ill and severely pained called day and night begging the doctor to help them. In May 1993, he was arrested, then released in his lawyer's custody, for merely being present at a suicide.
Then Michigan Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Stephens declared the hurry up 15-month ban unconstitutional because it was passed without public hearings and contained more than one objective.
Helping his seventeenth suicide, Kevorkian dared the authorities to prosecute him under the questionable law, which was under review by the Michigan Court of Appeals. On August 17, 1993, he was indicted. "I welcome going on trial," he said. "It isn't Kevorkian on trial. It isn't assisted suicide on trial. You know what's on trial? It's your civilization and society."
Eight hours after the judge ordered him to stand trial, the doctor helped his eighteenth suicide. Some one hundred Friends of Dr. Kevorkian rallied before his apartment building. Neighbors expressed fond support when the doctor said that, if jailed, he would go on a hunger strike.
In October, the doctor assisted his nineteenth suicide—the first in his own apartment in Royal Oak, Michigan. Arrested and refusing to post bail or walk from the courtroom, he was dragged to jail. After Jack DeMoss, a stranger who opposed assisted suicide, bailed him out, the doctor helped his twentieth suicide.
Courts Grapple with the Issue
December 1993 saw Dr. Kevorkian returned to jail on his third charge of breaking the 15-month ban. He refused to post bond or consume anything but fruit juice, water, and vitamins. After ten days, unshaven, weak and gaunt, he was pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair for a hearing. Three days later, Wayne County Chief Judge Richard C. Kaufman declared the controversial law unconstitutional. In barring all assisted suicide, he said, the Michigan legislature had passed a statute that was too broad to be consistent with rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The judge cited a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right to refuse life-supporting medical treatment and found that "when quality of life is significantly impaired by a medical condition and the medical condition is unlikely to improve" the person has a "constitutional right" to commit suicide. Oakland County Prosecutor Thompson, holding the doctor in jail, said the ruling was not binding in his jurisdiction.
Then, later in December after nearly three weeks in jail, Dr. Kevorkian promised to stop helping suicides "until we get some resolution of this from the courts." A jury trial in the spring of 1994 found him not guilty of violating the ban on assisted suicide even though he admitted to helping a suicide in 1993. Next, the Michigan Court of Appeals reinstated the two murder charges from 1991. The doctor appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals found the 15-month temporary ban unconstitutional for technical reasons. Prosecutor Richard Thompson appealed.
Hours after the 15-month ban ended, in his first assisted suicide in more than a year but his twenty-first altogether, Dr. Kevorkian helped a Royal Oak, Michigan, woman commit suicide in her home. She had had both legs and one eye removed because of rheumatoid arthritis and advanced osteoporosis. Two weeks later, the Michigan House of Representatives, in a lame-duck session, rushed through a new bill to take effect April 1, 1995, outlawing assisted suicide. It then moved in an apparent contradiction, for a state-wide voter referendum in November 1996. The state's Senate passed a similar bill but did not call for a referendum. At the same time, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision and said the Legislature had acted within the constitution in banning doctor-assisted suicides. By this time, the 15-month ban had already expired.
The court also declared that, even without a law, helping a suicide "may be prosecuted as a common-law felony" with a five-year prison term. "This," said Dr. Kevorkian, "is a perfect, clear manifestation of the existence of the inquisition in this state, no different from the medieval one." Attorney Fieger, who had beaten every criminal charge ever brought against the doctor, said "I am ready to take on 21 murder trials, starting tomorrow. No jury will ever convict Dr. Kevorkian. They couldn't even convict him of assisted suicide."
Assisted Suicide also Debated on West Coast
On May 2, 1994, a Michigan jury acquitted Kevorkian of criminal charges in assisting the suicide of Thomas Hyde, a young man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. The next day, in Seattle, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled in a suit brought by three terminally ill patients, five doctors, and Compassion in Dying—an organization that supports those who seek help to commit suicide. The judge found that a Washington state law that made helping a suicide a felony offense was unconstitutional. Under the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she decided that adults who are terminally ill and mentally competent have a right to doctor-assisted suicide. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court, finding that Compassion in Dying arguments were not convincing, upheld the Ninth Circuit Court decision.
Election day, November 8, 1994, found Oregon voters in favor of a law permitting doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who ask for them. Scheduled to take effect December 8, the law required the patient to ask for the prescription at least twice orally and once in writing, with a lapse of at least 15 days between the first request and the prescription date. The new law was immediately challenged by a coalition of patients, doctors, and other healthcare providers. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan put the law on hold while its constitutional aspects could be reviewed. The law was upheld.
From 60 Minutes to 10-25 Years
By 1999, it was estimated that Kevorkian had assisted in at least 130 suicides over a nine year period of time. Murder charges against him had been thrown out of court twice. Three charges of assisted suicide had come to trial, with acquittals resulting each time. A fourth had ended in a mistrial. In every case, the jury had decided in his favor based on heart-wrenching testimony depicting the pain and agony of those Kevorkian felt compelled to help die. In 1997, as he took office, Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca had dropped 13 of the charges filed by his predecessor Richard Thompson, because he found there was not enough evidence to bring the cases to trial successfully.
On September 17, 1998, Kevorkian, apparently determined to force society to deal with the issue of assisted suicide, videotaped the death of 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who was severely incapacitated with Lou Gehrig's disease. But this time, rather than setting up a device to allow Youk to trigger his own death, Kevorkian himself injected a drug into Youk's veins. He then offered the videotape to the CBS 60Minutes television program, which aired it in November.
Prosecutor David Gorcyca pounced on the case, charging Kevorkian with first-degree murder, assisted suicide, and delivering a controlled substance (being no longer certified as a doctor, Kevorkian could not legally prescribe or administer drugs). When Kevorkian insisted on acting as his own lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger stepped down succeeded by his associate, David Gorosh.
By the beginning of the trial in March 22, 1999, the prosecutors, hoping to avoid jury-swaying depictions of pain and suffering, withdrew the assistedsuicide charge. Instead, the jury listened to Kevorkian testify that his goal was not to commit murder but to gain a forum for assisted suicide. It viewed the 60 Minutes videotape but heard from only three witnesses: two policemen (respondents to the 911 call about Youk's death) and Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. L.J. Dragovic, who said an injection of potassium chloride caused Youk's heart to stop.
Judge Jessica Cooper denied Kevorkian's motion to allow relatives of Youk to testify that the death was a mercy killing. She advised the jury it could return a verdict of first-degree or second-degree murder or manslaughter. As the jury deliberated, Kevorkian withdrew as his own attorney. On Friday, March 26, the former doctor was found guilty of second-degree murder and of delivering a controlled substance.
Cooper sentenced the 71-year-old to 10-25 years in jail, with a concurrent of 3 to 7 years on the drug charge. "You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you," she told the defendant. "Well, sir, consider yourself stopped."
Saying that he had been ill-advised by Gorosh in presenting his defense, Kevorkian requested a new trial. It was refused. As he entered Oaks Correctional Facility as prisoner no. 284797, the state of Michigan, which can legally take up to 90 percent of a prisoner's assets to pay for living costs, siezed a lump sum of $31,155 from Kevorkian's bank account and $364.50 per month from his hospital pension. He was allowed to keep some $77,000 in his legal defense fund.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Brovins, Joan, and Thomas H. Oehmke. Dr. Death: Dr. Jack Kevorkian's Rx: Death. Hollywood, Fla.: Lifetime Books, 1993.
Brown, Judy. The Choice: Seasons of Loss and Renewal after a Father's Decision to Die. Berkeley, Calif.: Conari, 1995.
Dzwonkowski, Ron, ed. The Suicide Machine: Understanding Jack Kevorkian, the People Who Came to Him, and the Issue of Assisted Suicide. Detroit: Detroit Free Press, 1997.
Kevorkian, Jack. Prescription: Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death. Amherst: N.Y.: Prometheus, 1991.
Loving, Carol. My Son, My Sorrow. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon, 1998.