Dr. Death Gets His Verdict: For America, the Jury is Still Out

Well, Dr. Jack Kevorkian got what he wanted, and now he doesn’t want it anymore. Last November, when charged with first degree murder, Kevorkian said “We need a felony conviction now. That’s the only way we’re going to get anywhere with this.” On March 26 a Detroit jury convicted Dr. Kevorkian of second-degree murder, and he may now spend the rest of his life in prison.

Dr. Kevorkian—or “Dr. Death” as he is known—was on trial for administering a fatal dose of potassium chloride last September 17 to Thomas Youk, a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kevorkian taped his act, and it was nationally broadcast on the popular CBS program “60 Minutes” a few weeks after the killing. It was this prime-time “snuff film” which led to his trial and conviction.

The trial was certain to be a bizarre and macabre ordeal under the best of circumstances. As it happened, Dr. Kevorkian exercised his right to serve as his own attorney, and he demonstrated a near-complete lack of legal knowledge. In the end, however, it was not Dr. Kevorkian’s inept defense that decided his case—it was the evidence. The jury debated for twelve hours before reaching their verdict, and they viewed the videotape of Youk’s death several times. What they saw was Kevorkian killing a patient by poison—and they could not ignore the graphic evidence.

The murder conviction is the most serious setback yet in Kevorkian’s crusade to legalize euthanasia. Though previously charged with assisted suicide, Kevorkian had never been successfully prosecuted, even though he admits to assisting at least 130 persons to die since beginning his crusade in 1990. Michigan prosecutors dropped the assisted suicide charge against Kevorkian in the Youk case, and went for broke with the charge of first-degree murder. This prevented Kevorkian from presenting a defense based upon Youk’s physical condition or consent to die.

Prosecutor John Skrzynski called Kevorkian “a medical hit man in the night with a bag of poison to do his job.” Kevorkian tried to present himself as a human rights activist in the line of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. He closed his case by asking the jury, “Honestly now, do you see what [the prosecutor] calls a killer?” Any good attorney knows better than to ask a question like that, and Kevorkian, age 70, now faces up to 32 years in prison.

The tragedy is that this verdict came only after 130 deaths. In the end, it took a videotaped murder to bring Dr. Death to justice. The criminal justice system failed to prevent his rampage of homicidal health care carried out in full public view. America lacks the moral conviction to outlaw assisted suicide with legislation that will stand, and even if Dr. Kevorkian remains in jail for the rest of his life, others will quickly take up his mission.

Just a month before Kevorkian’s trial, the state of Oregon released its first annual report on assisted suicide and euthanasia. The report indicated that 15 Oregonians died in 1998 by assisted suicide—all made fully legal by Oregon’s 1997 “Death with Dignity Act.” The report cheerfully reveals that the 15 died without complications such as vomiting or seizures, and Governor John Kitzhaber’s policy advisor for health care said that the governor “is gratified to see that the act is working, much as we expected it would.”

Another Oregon health official boasted that the state is “the only place in the world where this is legal.” Though officially illegal in the Netherlands, an estimated 4,500 persons die there each year by euthanasia, and another 500 by assisted suicide. Unchecked by moral revulsion, the death toll in Oregon is certain to rise, and the “Dutch cure” is now sanctioned by state law.

America is at a critical moment of decision on the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The movement to make these procedures fully legal and medically sanctioned is gaining steam and momentum. In the end, Jack Kevorkian was convicted only because he chose to force the issue in this way, and dared a jury to judge him guilty. Behind his high-stakes publicity stunt is a massive movement which sees human life only through the twisted lenses of a cost/benefit analysis. We are not winning this battle.

“Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer,’ wrote the late Walker Percy, man of letters and medical doctor. The pro-euthanasia forces are winning because they have successfully disguised cruelty as kindness.

In presenting his closing argument to the Michigan jury, prosecutor Skrzynski warned, “There are 11 million souls buried in Europe that can tell you that when you make euthanasia a state policy, some catastrophic things can evolve from that.” The catastrophe is not far on the horizon. For the American people, the jury is still out.