Jack Kevorkian

Jack Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Michigan, on May 28, 1928, the son of Armenian immigrants who fled to America to escape the genocidal atrocities inflicted on the Armenians by the Turks.

Although his ambition was to be a baseball announcer, his parents were determined he pursue a more serious career and he graduated from University of Michigan medical school with a specialty in pathology in 1952 (the study of corpses and tissue to determine cause of death or disease). Kevorkian was not qualified to practice medicine, even as a general practitioner. 1

Wanting to discover how eyes changed at the moment of death, Kervorkian asked to work nights at Detroit Receiving Hospital because more patients died then.

Jokingly, he called his quest the Death Rounds. For added effect, he sometimes would wear a black arm band. It didn't much bother him that his co-workers called him Doctor Death.

"I was sort of the laughing stock of the hospital," Kevorkian admitted later in life.

After missing the deaths of several patients by mere minutes, he finally got his camera to the bedside of a patient who was still alive. To enable him to get shots of a cornea before, during and after death he taped open the sick woman's eyelids and focused his lens.

As the woman went into convulsions and died, the blood vessels in her cornea quickly faded from view. Jack Kevorkian got it all on film.

In 1956, he published an article discussing his efforts to photograph the eyes of dying patients, "The Fundus Oculi and the Determination ofDeath."

Medical Experimentation Proposal
It was also in 1956 that he visited death row prisioners at the Ohio State Penitentiary, wanting their reaction to his idea of doing medical experiments at their executions.

One of the convicted murderers he spoke to later sent him a letter saying: "I would gladly give you what you requested of me and in doing so it might help others."

Kervorkian's proposal was as follows:
At the time of execution, put the condemned to sleep with drugs, then do experiments and finally inject lethal drugs to carry out the sentence. The benefits: Millions saved in research costs. New cures discovered. And, not least of all, a chance to find what makes the criminal mind tick.

He argued that "any human being condemned to unavoidable death for any conventional reason...whether justly or not, anywhere in the world should be allowed this choice." He proposed a new specialty of doctors to do the experiments, saying it would be "a unique privilege...to be able to experiment on a doomed human being."

Anticipating objections, Kevorkian insisted his proposal was unlike Nazi concentration camp experiments.

"Those medical crimes apparently were such a horrendous discovery for the civilized world that, regrettably, they seem to have blunted reason and common sense with regard to the rational assessment of the use of condemned human subjects for research," Kevorkian wrote. "Medical experimentation on consenting humans was, is and most likely always will be the laudable and correct thing to do." 2
Unable to get his article published, Kervorkian presented the paper at the December 1958 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. D.C. (The group's chairman figured the outlandish scheme would turn more people against capital punishment.)

University of Michigan officials were embarrassed by the ensuing publicity and asked Kevorkian to leave his residency there. He then took a job at Pontiac General Hospital, which was a busy and loosely run city hospital.

Blood from Cadavers
After a colleague told him that Russian doctors were experimentally transfusing blood from corpses, Kevorkian enlisted help and decided to give it a try.
When a victim of a heart attack or auto accident was brought in, Kevorkian's team would do a quick autopsy, put the body on a tilt table, stick a syringe in the jugular, let the blood drain into a bottle, then give the blood to live patients. It worked. 3
In 1961, in a paper in The Journal of Clinical Pathology, Kevorkian acknowledged the cadaver blood research "has an ostensible undercurrent of repugnance which makes it difficult to view objectively." He regarded corpses as a free, ready-made source of blood, adding that "permission of next of kin is not necessary if corpse blood is to be taken... Routine consent from the recipient is no more necessary than in instances of conventional blood bank transfusions."
Dr. Murray Levin, then an internist at Pontiac General, said Kevorkian's frequent talk about his research unnerved his colleagues.

"Most of us just sort of changed the subject when he got on it," Levin said. "We thought it was inappropriate. We had plenty of blood. We didn't need to deal with cadavers." 4
Following experiments where he transfused blood directly from a dead patient to a living person, Kevorkian published results of his research in a 1964 article in Military Medicine. His idea was that it could be used on battlefields to save lives.

Kevorkian tried to interest the Pentagon with the idea but the Defense Department rejected it and denied him a federal grant to continue his research.
Kevorkian called his years at Pontiac General "the best days of our lives." But the research added to his oddball reputation. "It got me into trouble. Jobs closed down because of that." His resume-- full of articles on death-row experiments, cornea photography at death, and cadaver blood transfusions-- "scared the hell out of people." 5
A turn to the Arts
In the early 1960's, Kevorkian took a Pontiac adult education class in oil painting. While his fellow classmates were painting pictures he considered 'banal' Kevorkian decided to quit the course. But first... he wanted to paint something that would shake them out of their staid lives "...turn their stomachs".

The art class painting became the first of 18 striking, gruesome, surrealistic visions full of skulls and body parts and cannibalism and harsh religious parody.

Leaving his pathology career behind, Kevorkian went to California in 1976, and invested his life savings in directing and producing a feature movie based on Handel's "Messiah." The movie flopped as he did not have a distributor. It became the one subject he adamantly refused to discuss in later interviews.

Later, to make ends meet, he took part-time jobs at the Beverly Hills Medical Center, where once again he was photographing the eyes of dying patients, and at Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. In 1981, he took a full-time job at Pacific where a superior described his work as brilliant.

Organ Harvesting
With capital punishment making a comeback following a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Kevorkian was sure that no one could object to harvesting organs at execution from consenting convicts. It would, he argued, save lives! He wrote to prison authorities with requests for consent to his proposal:
"We wantonly squander priceless opportunities to study ourselves and our living brains, as well as new ways to make us wiser, healthier and happier. We snuff out lives of criminals eager to make amends by donating their organs and helping science unlock some of nature's deepest secrets." 6
No-one else seemed to agree.

A Growing Enthusiasm for Euthanasia
In a 1968 article in an obscure German journal Medicine and Law, Kevorkian praised Nazi doctors for trying to get some good out of concentration camp deaths by conducting medical experiments. He proposed euthanasia with few restrictions. He questioned whether psychiatrists should have the right to choose suicide. He outlined a system of centers for death-on-demand, calling them "obitoria."
"It's time for a society obsessed with planned birth to consider diverting some of its attention and energy from an overriding concern with longevity of life at all costs, to the snowballing need for a rational stance on planned death."
At Obitoria, research could be carried out on any consenting adult. Patients who did not wish to be anesthetized could remain conscious during some experiments. Kevorkian's proposal would permit any kind of research. He wrote:

"No aim could be too remote, too silly, too simple, too absurd; and no experiment to outlandish. Any magnitude of gain would be better than vacuous death."

Throughout the 1980's, he had numerous articles published in Medicine and Law outlining his ideas on euthanasia and ethics.

In 1986, Kevorkian learned the doctors in the Netherlands were helping people die, mostly by lethal injection. "Then I conceived the idea of expanding my death row proposal to include experimentation on willing patients who opt for euthanasia."

Wanting to talk to doctors who thought as he did, Kevorkian flew to Amsterdam in 1987 . He was not received well as the leaders of the Dutch euthanasia movement considered his proposals for organ harvesting and experimentation so radical they would hurt the cause for the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

After speaking to Dutch doctors who had participated in assisted suicides, Kevorkian was spurred to action. He later wrote:

"I decided to take the risky step of assisting terminal patients in committing suicide. I could not even consider performing active euthanasia and thereby being charged with murder."

An article Kevorkian published in a 1988 edition of Medicine and Law, entitled "The Last Fearsome Taboo: Medical Aspects of Planned Death," outlined his proposed system of planned deaths in suicide clinics, including medical experimentation on patients.

Having decided to help people to kill themselves, Kevorkian at first looked at carbon monoxide.

In his book Prescription: Medicide, Kevorkian wrote that the gas is "toxic enough to cause rapid unconsciousness in relatively low concentration. Furthermore, in light-complexioned people, it often produces a rosy color that makes the victim look better as a corpse."

Eventually, Kevorkian decided on a lethal injection as the best method. Using $30 worth of scrap parts scrounged from garage sales and hardware stores, Kevorkian built his "suicide machine" at the kitchen table of his apartment. He called the machine the Thanatron - Greek for "death machine."

Kevorkian later showed it off, including an appearance on the "Donahue" show. He called it "dignified, humane and painless and the patient can do it in the comfort of their own home at any time they want."

Death Counselling
In his search for a first patient, Kevorkian started advertising in Detroit papers as a "physician consultant" for "death counselling". The advert read:

Does he or she wish to die - and with dignity?

He only received two responses to his ads, neither of whom he considered suitable as clients.

Kevorkian had business cards printed that read: Jack Kevorkian, MD...Bioethics and Obitiatry...Special Death Counseling. By Appointment Only.

He wrote:"To add a touch of dignity and legitimacy to the new specialty, I coined the word 'obitiatry.'" (From the word 'obituary'.)

In March of 1990 a Detroit newspaper carried this article:
"Applications are being accepted. Oppressed by a fatal disease, a severe handicap, or a crippling deformity? Write BOX 264, Royal Oak, Mich. 48068-0261. Show him proper compelling medical evidence that you should die, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself free of charge."
One patient he rejected was a woman with multiple sclerosis who, he explained, was "not a suitable candidate for the first use of his death machine" because her situation wouldn't garner the favorable coverage he needed for the "initial event".

His Clients
Kevorkian's first 'official' client was Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Alzheimer's patient, from Portland Oregon. Newly diagnosed with early-stage Alzeheimer's Disease, Janet Adkins was afraid of the future deterioration she faced.

Janet's husband Ron contacted Kevorkian initially and liased with him during the planning sessions. Setting the date for November 30, 1989--so she "wouldn't spoil Christmas for the kids"--she made plans to go.

"Janet selected the music and the readings for the memorial service," writes author Betzold. She "arranged for a therapist to mediate final `closure' sessions with her family." 7

Janet Adkins death using the "suicide machine" occurred in Kevorkian's 1968 Volkswagen van in Groveland Oaks Park near Holly, Michigan.

Legal Charges and More Deaths
Kevorkian was charged with first-degree murder, but the Oakland County District Court dropped charges on December 13, 1990, after a two-day preliminary hearing. The court ruled that Kevorkian did not break any law by helping Adkins commit suicide because there is no Michigan law outlawing suicide or the medical assistance of it. 8

The following year, on October 23, Kevorkian used the machine again on Marjorie Wantz, a 58-year-old Sodus, Michigan, woman with pelvic pain and a long history of depression and other psychiatric problems. Minutes later, Sherry Miller, a 43-year-old Roseville, Michigan, woman with multiple sclerosis, died from carbon monoxide poisoning inhaled through a face mask.

The deaths took place at a rented state park cabin near Lake Orion, Michigan.

Less than one month later, the state Board of Medicine revoked Kevorkian's license to practice. On April 27, 1993, a California law judge suspended Kevorkian's medical license after a request from that state's medical board.

In May 1992, another woman, Susan Williams, a 52-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis, died from carbon monoxide poisoning in her home in Clawson, Michigan.

Two months later, in July, Judge David Breck of the Oakland County Circuit Court, dismissed charges against Kevorkian in the deaths of Miller and Wantz.

Kevorkian helped two more women to kill themselves before the Michigan Legislature passed a ban on assisted suicide on December 03, 1992, to take effect on March 30, 1993.

In all, Kevorkian was acquitted three times despite the weight of evidence against him and had charges dropped in another case after a mis-trial. He is believed to have helped kill between 120 and 130 people or more. Most of Kevorkian's clients were not terminally ill, although he claimed that they were experiencing unbearable suffering.

Support from Right-To-Die Leaders
Leaders of the National Hemlock Society (now called End of Life Choices) supported Kevorkian, provided money for his legal fees and spoke of him with admiration.

John Pridonoff, a former executive director of the Hemlock Society U.S.A., wrote, "Since October of 1992 The Hemlock Society U.S.A. and I have indicated support for the goals and objectives of Kevorkian." 9

Sidney Rosoff, then president of the Hemlock Society U.S.A. and former board chairman of the Society for the Right to Die, said, "Dr. Kevorkian really deserves a great deal of credit for doing what other physicians are not doing or at least are not doing openly." 10

In a letter to the New York Times, Rosoff wrote, "Dr. Kevorkian acted in the tradition of a caring and courageous physician." 10

The National Hemlock Society (now called End of Life Choices), said in a press release, "Hemlock would prefer that actions like those of Dr. Kevorkian were clearly made legal and not subject to ambiguity." 11

In another press release, Hemlock declared, "Dr. Kevorkian's motive was purely humanitarian." 12

Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the suicide manual, Final Exit, said, "One could quibble about things with Dr. Kevorkian, but basically he's along the same lines as me...He ought to be able to do these things in hospitals and not in the back of a van." 13

Humphry is also quoted as saying that Kevorkian is "a very brave pioneer who is trying to shock the medical profession into accepting voluntary euthanasia..." 14

On another occasion, Humphry commented, "It's a pincer movement. He's (Kevorkian) coming at it through the courts and we in the right-to-die movement are coming through the legislatures." 15

Pit Bakker, chairwoman of the Dutch Voluntary Society, called Kevorkian's death machine, "a technical innovation which brings no new ethical elements" to euthanasia debate. 17

Janet Good, president of Hemlock of Michigan, praised Kevorkian: "He's compassionate, he's courageous; thank God we have a doctor like him." 18

Humphry's website calls Kevorkian a 'Prisoner of Conscience' and says:
"Kevorkian's martyrdom - self-imposed as it is -- will speed up the day when voluntary euthanasia for the dying is removed from the legal classification of 'murder' and recognized as a justifiable act of compassion." 19
On November 3, 1998, despite opinion polls showing support for assisted suicide, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to legalise physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill, mentally competent, adults by 71%.

Kevorkian himself publicly opposed the measure, saying it was too restrictive and bureaucratic.

Thomas Youk
In 1998, Thomas Youk, aged 52, had suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, for two years and decided he had had enough.

Supported by his brother, another brother, his mother, and his wife, who decided contacting Kevorkian was a good idea, they wrote to him. He visited Youk in September.
"Kevorkian came to see him, interviewed him at length, got him to sign a document saying that he gave permission, and then Kevorkian said, Now I'll go away for a month and I'll come back after a month and see ? no, no, no ? a week ? finally they decided on a week. The following night ? the following night Dr. Kevorkian was called by the brother and said, please, get over to the house now, he wants to go now." 20
Kevorkian videotaped the entire procedure and injected the lethal dose himself on September 18, 1998.

The Challenge
The death certificate, signed by the medical examiner, gave the cause of death as 'homicide', the method being 'lethal injection.' Despite this the police did not follow it up. Kevorkian, realising that it was going to take something more drastic to get the authorities to arrest him, gave the tape to the media.

"60 Minutes" TV programme aired Kevorkian's tape on 22 November 1998. The broadcast triggered an intense debate within medical, legal and media circles and led to Kevorkian being charged with first-degree murder, violating the assisted suicide law and delivering a controlled substance without a license in the death of Youk.

Prosecutors later dropped the assisted suicide charge in order to prevent emotional testimonies by members of Youk's family.

Kevorkian insisted on defending himself during the trial and Judge Cooper reluctantly allowed it, but only after voicing her misgivings numerous times. Although he had two lawyers sitting at the defense table to offer their advice, he seldom listened to them. He overestimated his legal acumen and threatened to starve himself if he was sent to prison.

During the closing arguments, Assistant Oakland County Prosecutor John Skrzynski drew a parallel between what Kevorkian did and what happened in Nazi Germany.
"There are 11 million souls buried in Europe who could tell you that there are some catastrophic effects when you make euthanasia law," he said. Calling Kevorkian "a medical hitman" who comes "in the night with his bag of poisons to do his job," Skrzynski reminded the jury that Kevorkian knew Youk for only 24 hours prior to killing him.
While replaying parts of the tape showing Youk's actual death, the prosecutor pointed out that Kevorkian didn't even take the time to shut Youk's gaping mouth before removing the needles and other medical devices-implying that Kevorkian was more concerned about killing and advancing his agenda than he was about Youk's dignity. 21 Throughout the trial, the jury remained focused on the law and the facts of the case. After the verdict was in, jurors said that Kevorkian's guilt was never in question. They spent time deliberating whether he was guilty of first- or second-degree murder. They opted for the latter. 22

Jack Lessenberry, a journalist close to Kevorkian, said that although he tried to look unruffled in the courtroom after the verdict, he was actually furious with the jury. "Not till he got in the car," Lessenberry wrote, "did he explode, screaming with anger, rage and frustration at the irrationality, cruelty and backwardness of society." Lessenberry went on to quote Kevorkian as saying, "I am starting my hunger strike now!" 23

He didn't. His new lead lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, told reporters that Kevorkian agreed to eat because he needed to be alive and well while the conviction is appealed. But there may have been another reason.

On the very same day that Kevorkian went to prison, the state of Michigan reversed its policy on force-feeding prisoners, and said that no prisoner would be force fed against his will. Earlier, Kevorkian had told reporters, "I know they are going to force-feed me, but my captivity is still enslavement...." Morganroth, according to Court TV, questioned the timing of the policy change. "Isn't that assisted suicide?" he asked. 24

Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison.

A motion for a new trial was filed in May 1999 but was denied. In November 1999, Kevorkian filed an appeal against his murder conviction on various grounds - including having had effective counsel, namely himself.

All attempts to have Kevorkian released prior to his first scheduled parole hearing in 2007 have also failed. State Governor Jennifer Granholm has said she won't consider pardoning him.

In a 2004 interview with The Oakland Press Kevorkian said, regarding the failure of efforts to appeal his conviction:
"The public has no power. The government knows I'm not a criminal. The parole board knows I'm not a criminal. The judge knows I'm not a criminal."
Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca disagrees.

"Absolutely it was murder," Gorcyca said, adding Kevorkian should be treated no differently, despite his age.

He opposes any effort to have Kevorkian's sentence commuted by the governor but said he would not oppose Kevorkian's parole in 2007.

"He flouted the law and baited, no, begged me, on national TV to prosecute him," Gorcyca said. "It wasn't like we were looking for an opportunity to charge him. Now he has to suffer the penalty."

As for Kevorkian's promise not to be involved in any other assisted suicides? Gorcyca said he remembers when bodies - notes pinned to their clothing - were being dropped off willy-nilly at area hospitals. He said Kevorkian continually violated restraining orders and conditions of bond.
"Why am I to believe him now, because he wants to get out of jail? He's not trustworthy.

It's tough to sympathize with somebody who put a finger in your face and castigated me and the office and called us all kinds of things. He was really in-your-face. He made it a personal attack." 25
A New Direction
Kevorkian spoke with MSNBC's Rita Cosby during a televised interview that was scheduled to air in September, 2005.

The 77-year-old said that if he is granted parole in 2007, his earliest possible release date, he plans to travel and visit family as well as resume his efforts to legalise assisted suicide.

"I have said publicly and officially that I will not perform that act again when I get out," he said. "What I'll do is what I should have done earlier, is pursue this from a legal standpoint by campaigning to get the laws changed." 26

Kevorkian has signed off on a book and a movie about his life, both of which are expected to be released sometime in 2006.

Anti-euthanasia activist, attorney Wesley Smith, hopes Kevorkian stays in jail, saying, "He has said he won't kill again, but he said that before. "

Smith goes on to say:
"But if he is released, there is no question he will put that agenda back on the front pages in blazing headlines since the media loves outlaws. Then, perhaps, we can get the truth out about the entire euthanasia agenda, not the gooey euphemisms and phony compassion that are the earmarks of such advocacy today. " 27
It would appear that while euthanasia and assisted suicide activists seem, for the most part, to have distanced themselves from Kevorkian, opponents are delighted to hold up Kevorkian as the poster boy for assisted suicide. believing he can only harm the cause for legalisation..

  1. Brian Johnston Death as a Salesman Ch 4, p.51
  2. Michael Betzold Appointment with Doctor Death Momentum Books, 1993
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. People v. Dr. Kevorkian, No. 90-20157 (52nd Dist. Ct. Mich. 1991); 534 N.W. 2d. 172 (1995)
  9. John Pridonoff, "The Law and Dr. Kevorkian," Time Lines, January-February, 1994, p. 1.
  10. Sidney Rosoff, in an interview on "Buchanan and Company," a nationally syndicated radio program, 8/20/93
  11. Sidney Rosoff, in a letter to the editor, New York Times, 8/21/93
  12. National Hemlock Society, Press release, Eugene, Oregon, 6/6/90
  13. National Hemlock Society, Press release, Eugene, Oregon, 10/24/91
  14. "Founder defends euthanasia action," The Lima News (Lima, Ohio), 10/16/93, p. B1
  15. Paul Verschuur, "Euthanasia Advocates Say Death Machine Raises Few New Issues,"AP wire service, 6/7/90
  16. "Dr. Death's trial intrigues legal experts," The Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), 8/19/93, p. A6
  17. Verschuur, AP wire service, 6/7/90
  18. "Doctor who helped in death gets support," Detroit Free Press, 6/7/90
  19. Prisoner of Conscience
  20. PBS Interview
  21. Court TV, 1/26/99
  22. IAETF Newsletter Volume 13, Number 2 -- April - June 1999
  23. Lessenberry, "Kevorkian: The Final Days," Hour Detroit, July 1999
  24. Court TV, 4/15/99; Detroit Free Press, 4/16/99
  25. http://theoaklandpress.com/stories/041104/loc_20040411071.shtml
  26. Kevorkian Wants to Become Poster Boy for Assisted Suicide
  27. Link to the MSNBC video