On the day Jack Kevorkian was sentenced, shackled, and sent off to state prison, he was, according to the Harris Poll, more famous than anyone in America, except for the president and first lady. He certainly was far better known than the governor of Texas, one George W. Bush.
The mood in America was very different. The economy was roaring on April 13, 1999. Gas was $1.59 a gallon. Ford Motor Co. was making billions so fast that year that the automaker used some of them to buy Volvo.
For the previous 15 months, the most pressing problem in the United States had been a president who clumsily fooled around with an eager White House intern and then lied about it. The biggest problem in the world seemed to be a civil war in the ruins of Yugoslavia. The most despicable man in the world was commonly assumed to be the villain of that conflict, Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia. President Bill Clinton was, that morning, begging the Congress that had just impeached him for money to stop the Yugoslav war.
Six thousand people were alive, innocents who would later die in the 9/11 attacks and in the Iraq war, during the years Kevorkian would be incarcerated.
On the day Dr. Death went to prison, very few people had ever heard the name Osama bin Laden. Nobody had heard of Barack Obama or Paris Hilton. American Idol did not exist.
Physician-assisted suicide – also known as “the right-to-die” movement – had been a national issue for years, thanks in part to one man. He had been on all the networks and had made the cover of Time.
In fact, what Kevorkian had done – thanks in large part to the skills of attorney Geoffrey Fieger – was to make physician-assisted suicide de facto legal. Metro Detroit prosecutors had sworn off charging him. The garage of the lakefront ranch Kevorkian rented from Fieger was filling up with wheelchairs of those who no longer would need them. Other doctors were thinking about openly assisting patients.
But then Kevorkian self-destructed, as thoroughly as a suicide bomber, which, in a sense, he was. In September 1998, he videotaped himself performing euthanasia on a patient, and sent it off to 60 Minutes.
In doing so, he taunted the authorities, dared them to charge him. When they did, he fired Fieger and insisted on running his own disastrous defense.
That bold move got him a second-degree murder conviction.
He had always done it his way. Now that was about to change. Oakland County Circuit Judge Jessica Cooper was on the bench that day of his sentencing.
Some assumed she would be sympathetic. They were wrong. “You had the audacity to dare the legal system to stop you,” she said from the bench. “Well, sir, consider yourself stopped.” She gave him 10-25 years, far harsher than anyone expected.
Kevorkian had wanted a conviction. “Now I’ve got them right where I want them,” he said, fully expecting massive protests demanding his release, followed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying assisted death was a right.
But his supporters melted away. “I think a lot of us came to realize that it wasn’t really about the issue,” but, rather, about his bizarre needs, said a woman who was one of the “survivors,” as relatives of assisted-suicide patients called themselves.
After the conviction, the friends and families of his earliest patients vanished, and so did the media.
“Prisoners don’t usually get to hold press conferences,” John Skrzynski, the Oakland County assistant prosecutor who put him away, said the day “Dr. Death” became Prisoner 284797.
Suddenly, the Michigan Department of Corrections banned broadcast interviews with inmates. Out of sight really meant out of mind. The networks felt the story was over anyway. Kevorkian had used up his fame. The prison system transferred him around to various maximum-security facilities.
Soon, other issues captured national attention. There were sports scandals and a disputed presidential election. One morning, two years later, Kevorkian’s new legal team finally managed to get a hearing to argue for a new trial. Not long into the hearing, they sensed a strange tension. Finally, the judge cut the hearing short. The courthouse was being evacuated. It was Sept. 11, 2001.
Eventually, the appeal was turned down. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. His supporters dwindled to Ruth Holmes, the metro Detroit handwriting analyst whose family took him in just before he went to prison; his physician, Stanley Levy; and a handful of friends.
Mayer Morganroth, the attorney who took up Kevorkian’s cause, never stopped fighting. Then, shortly after her re-election, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced Kevorkian would be paroled June 1.
The state was in serious economic trouble, the prisons were bulging, and she wanted to lower the prison population by 5,000 inmates who were seen as no longer dangerous.
Kevorkian, now 79, vowed never to help anyone die again. And so he qualified.
Kevorkian’s intimates say he intends to spend his remaining years living quietly, perhaps with the Holmes family, writing, lecturing, and working to make physician-assisted suicide legal.
Ironically, that’s precisely what he had virtually accomplished 10 years ago. Then he single-handedly ruined what he had built – though not completely.
Oregon, the home state of his first patient, has legalized a form of physician- assisted suicide. And doctors everywhere realized they needed to get a lot more serious about pain management. The hospice movement took off, in large part to provide an alternative to Kevorkian.
Yet will society ever fully embrace the idea of doctor-assisted death?
“Of course they will,” Kevorkian told me long ago, when he was briefly in the Oakland County Jail. They will, he said, “for the wrong reasons.
“You are a baby boomer. There are lots more of you than the generation after you.
“They aren’t going to pay to keep you on machines forever.”
Now, sometimes at night, I have a sneaking suspicion that he may well be right.