The Suicide Doctor, Jack Kevorkian, Has Gone Too Far With Latest Act

26 March 1999

By Stentor Danielson

This week, our old (70 years old, to be exact) friend Dr. Jack "the suicide man" Kevorkian went on trial for the fifth time for his controversial assisted suicide practice. Kevorkian is charged with first-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance in the death by lethal injection this September of Thomas Youk, who was afflicted with Lou Gehrig's Disease. Though I find death in general -- and suicide in particular -- repugnant, I have in the past stood behind Kevorkian's right to practice his particular profession. Unfortunately, in this case, he has dug his own grave, so to speak.

Why this change of heart? Well, the thing that makes this case different from the previous four (which led to three acquittals and one mistrial) is that there is documentary evidence in the form of a videotape, an edited form of which was aired on 60 Minutes, showing Kevorkian's hands administering the fatal injection. In previous cases, though Kevorkian supplied and set up the apparatus, it was the victims who actually pushed the button that killed them. There is also, as before, documentation that the victim requested that Kevorkian end his life. But the distinction of who administered the poison is still important, regardless of the victim's desire to die.

There is much less immediacy in asking someone else to kill you - even if they have signed a contract to do so - than in actually injecting the poison into your own veins. Once you say the word, the action is beyond your control. As I see it, in having Kevorkian administer the poison, Youk was giving Kevorkian the responsibility for his (Youk's) death. Perhaps also for Kevorkian's, though the expected sentence, if he is convicted, is life imprisonment.

The reason we, as well as every society in history, have a law against murder is to prevent one person from taking the responsibility for deciding when another person will die. This means that, in Youk's case, regardless of the fact that Youk wanted to die, Kevorkian took a responsibility that he is not legally or morally entitled to. Whether he did it for a good reason (which is Kevorkian's main defense) is irrelevant. The law cannot be expected to make these kind of subjective distinctions.

And as far as I can tell, Kevorkian knows he's in the wrong on this one. The big controversy in the courtroom is over whether the defense can call Youk's relatives as witnesses to describe his excruciating pain and suffering. This request has been made despite the fact that the judge ruled that the pain and suffering defense could only be used against an assisted suicide charge, which Kevorkian is not facing. Additionally, Kevorkian has been trying to establish that real murder involves evil intentions and a desire to hurt the victim. But the definition of first-degree murder involves only "premeditation and deliberation," qualities that Kevorkian has wisely not tried to deny. So neither of these tactics is a real defense. Neither of them makes any pretense of claiming that Kevorkian did not commit murder as it is defined under current Michigan law.

The jury will, ideally, make a decision based on whether Kevorkian violated the law, not on whether he is a nice guy. It was probably wise of the prosecution to drop the assisted suicide charge, which they initially considered making along with murder, in light of the ruling on using Youk's relatives as witnesses. The jurors, being human beings, might be swayed by the "nice guy" defense, whatever its legal merits. Kevorkian is certainly counting on that.

My big question after all of this is, why did Kevorkian let this little detail wreck the career that he feels such a strong moral and professional impetus to follow? He had an unassailable system worked out, in which the victim does the actual killing - making it true suicide - that stood up to four challenges over the course of more than 130 applications. If Youk wanted to die as bad as Kevorkian says he did, he would have had no problem pushing the button himself. So why did Kevorkian make the mistake of injecting Youk himself? The only explanation I can see is that Kevorkian, at age 70, has so little of his life left that a life imprisonment sentence is no longer such a deterrent. He has, in fact, threatened to starve himself to death if he is incarcerated (not that that would really be a bad thing for the state or its taxpayers). Or maybe he's just a murderer at heart, and assisted suicide was just a carefully and brilliantly constructed -- but ultimately unsatisfying -- tactic to meet his blood thirst. But I'll leave that question to the ward psychologist.

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