Mich. charges Kevorkian in man's assisted suicide

August 18, 1993|By New York Times News Service

DETROIT -- Dr. Jack Kevorkian got his wish yesterday when he became the first person charged under Michigan's new law banning assisted suicide, a felony that carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

Dr. Kevorkian, who has helped 17 ailing people kill themselves since 1990, has been pushing for this confrontation for two weeks, hoping for a trial in which he can focus even more attention on his cause and challenge the law in court, where he is confident he will be acquitted.

"I will continue helping suffering patients no matter what," the doctor said yesterday at a news conference. "I welcome going trial. It isn't Kevorkian on trial. It isn't assisted suicide on trial. You know what's on trial? It's your civilization and society."

Asked about yesterday's proceedings, Dr. Kevorkian's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, said: "This is what we asked for. When a law mandates suffering, such as this law, it must be disobeyed."

The law was enacted in February specifically because of Dr. Kevorkian's campaign to help terminally ill people kill themselves. Dr. Kevorkian was charged with helping a 30-year-old man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, commit suicide Aug. 4.

A few hours after the man's death, Dr. Kevorkian publicly acknowledged breaking the law and dared prosecutors to charge him. It was the 17th time he had helped someone die since 1990 but the first time he had clearly violated the new statute.

The law was struck down on technical grounds in May by a Wayne County judge, but it was reinstated by an appellate court. It is now under review by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Although the Wayne County prosecutor, John D. O'Hair, decided to charge Dr. Kevorkian, he seemed ambivalent about the pending prosecution, the accused and the statute itself.

Mr. O'Hair said he hoped a trial would encourage the courts and the state legislature to move more quickly in resolving the issue of assisted suicide.

"Life-and-death decisions are the types of things that have to be given priority," he said. "This a profound issue. Whatever one's opinion of Dr. Kevorkian is, he has nevertheless focused public attention and concern on this critical issue. He has served a useful public service."

Finding a jury willing to convict Dr. Kevorkian might be difficult. Opinion surveys show widespread support for the concept of assisted suicide for the incurably ill.

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