Farewell to Dr. Death

One reporter's thoughts on the legacy of Jack Kevorkian


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EDINBURGH, Scotland — On the day that Jack Kevorkian finally was sentenced for second-degree murder, he looked at me and smiled as the bailiffs led him away. “Now I’ve got them right where I want them,” he said, smiling.

The prosecutor who had won the conviction, Oakland County’s John Skrzynski, knew better. “Prisoners don’t usually get to hold press conferences,” he said. That was exactly right. Away from the cameras, without Geoffrey Fieger’s skillful management of the media, he was soon forgotten.

There was something else, too. Kevorkian thought — or pretended to think — that his outraged supporters would surround whatever prison he was in, demonstrate, and demand his release. But they melted away.

One of them, Cheryl Gale, a sweet woman whose emphysema-stricken husband had ended his life with Kevorkian, said it best. “I think we realized that what he was doing was all about his needs, not ours,” she told me.

After covering him intensely for many years, I had come to realize that was exactly right, too. As the years passed, it became clear that Dr. Death, as he was commonly known, had used up his 15 minutes of fame. In the wake of Sept. 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, death-on-demand didn’t seem quite as sexy anymore.

The tragedy was that, in the end, Kevorkian did almost as much to sabotage the cause he had championed as he had done to make “right to die” a national issue. I know a fair amount about that — and a good deal about him.

For six years, I covered Kevorkian for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Hour Detroit, and many other media outlets, seeing him almost daily at times. I believe I came to know him almost as well as anyone.

One of the first things he ever told me was that he would never live to see 70. “Nobody in my family has ever made it that far, and I won’t either,” he said.

He was wrong about that, as he was about many things. Ironically, his own reputation — and quite likely acceptance of physician-assisted suicide — would be much different if he had died as early as he had predicted.

Consider: When Kevorkian turned 70 on May 26, 1998, his practice of physician-assisted suicide had become de facto legal in metro Detroit. The prosecutors in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties had all signaled they would no longer bring cases against him.

Juries had essentially nullified the existing law in five separate trials. A sixth, a farce in Ionia, had been dismissed after opening arguments. Oakland County Prosecutor Richard Thompson had been turned out of office over his refusal to stop prosecuting Kevorkian, Dr. Death had a nearly free hand to practice his peculiar specialty, and other doctors were considering joining him.

But there was always an immature and self-destructive side of Kevorkian, something that had plagued him throughout his checkered career. In the end, it caused him to destroy his movement and his reputation. The day after Fieger lost the 1998 election for governor, Kevorkian asked me to see him.

“I have done euthanasia. I need to take this to the next level. How do I get a national audience for this?” I suggested Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes. After that CBS interview aired, Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca had no choice but to prosecute Kevorkian for murder. (Especially after Kevorkian said he would “do another one on Gorcyca’s front steps,” if he failed to charge him.)

To make doubly sure he got himself convicted, Kevorkian then fired Fieger, who had kept him free and made him a national figure, and insisted on representing himself. It was clear to anyone in the courtroom that he had a fool for a client. Eight years later, when his new attorney, Mayer Morganroth, succeeded in getting the governor to commute Kevorkian’s sentence, he had been largely forgotten. He lived his last years as an increasingly crotchety crank. He ran for Congress, then lost interest halfway through his own campaign.

He turned on old friends, including some of his closest. (He refused to speak to me, saying that I was “too objective.”) In the end, he was apparently close only to Morganroth; his longtime carbon-monoxide supplier, Neal Nicol; and his niece, Ava Janus, whom he earlier had shunned for a decade.

I learned of his death while tramping about the Scottish highlands where, when I mentioned it to an Israeli woman at Stirling Castle, she said, “I thought he died years ago.”

In a sense, he had. But he did have a lasting influence, almost in spite of himself, however. Assisted suicide is now legal in a limited way in Washington and Oregon. Doctors have been forced to get much more serious about pain management. Both my parents died in the same hospital Kevorkian did, 13 years apart. Doctors were reluctant to give my father adequate morphine for his pain. When my mother was expiring from a similar condition, she had no trouble getting all the pain medication she wanted.

But Dr. Death’s biggest contribution may turn out to have been the rapid growth of the hospice movement, which suddenly seemed to many to be a much better alternative to a mask, a tank of gas, and the back of a rusty van.

He also forced us to face the fact that modern medicine can prolong existence for many of us far beyond the time when life is worth living. Once, early on, he told me that assisted suicide would one day be routine.

“There’s too many of you baby boomers,” he said. “The next generation will never pay for you to be kept alive on machines. Think about that.”

The older I get, the more I do.

Lessenberry covered Kevorkian for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Hour Detroit. He teaches journalism at Wayne State University and is a regular commentator on Michigan Public Radio.
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