It was the call those of us working night shifts at the Associated Press bureau in Detroit in the mid-1990s dreaded. A body in a seedy motel or dropped at a hospital’s ER meant one thing: Dr Death at work.
I started my reporting career as many Detroit journalists did by following Jack Kevorkian around at his peak output of assisted suicides. While the obits written following his death today will say the number is at least 100, the actual total must be far higher; there were always stories about Kevorkian performing a few freelance jobs, even one in New York when he went to get an award from Time magazine.
The no-tell motel approach was actually a refinement of Kevorkian’s previous methods; for his first assisted suicides he used his 1968 VW van parked on the campground next to his house. Kevorkian was never wealthy; his medical career as a pathologist having been spent mostly with government agencies, and was too interested in his intellectual pursuits (painting with his own blood, jazz flute) to care much about money. He never married, although he did spend nearly a decade in California trying to make a movie of George Handel’s “Messiah”. His machine was two vials of drugs and a button for someone to push on a rickety frame. Death didn’t carry a scythe, but an Erector Set.
I never got to know Kevorkian personally, although he and his attorney Geoffrey Fieger did shout at me a few times. I did come to know one of his closest friends, Janet Good, who believed Kevorkian was offering disabled or terminally ill people a chance to recover some power over themselves. Kevorkian’s crusade would have been stopped early on without Fieger’s legal protections. After four murder trials ended in not guilty verdicts, Michigan prosecutors stopped charging Kevorkian; Fieger could always call on the families and friends of the deceased who would describe just how miserable life had become when you can’t clean yourself or think straight through pain. The only thing those juries would convict Kevorkian of was heroism.
Good herself suffered from pancreatic cancer. Kevorkian was there when she passed.
Without Good, Kevorkian eventually screwed himself through his hard-headedness and lust for provocation, by not just pushing the button himself on a patient but giving a video of the event to 60 Minutes. What had been assisted suicide was now legally manslaughter; prosecutors had to act, and could block the relatives’ testimony. After that tape, Fieger backed away from Kevorkian, who chose to defend himself.
I reported the trial for the AP, watching Kevorkian attempt unsuccessfully to replicate the courtroom thunder that Fieger could summon, arguing that his works “by sheer common sense are not crimes”. He stumbled over procedure, called no witnesses on his behalf, and the jury took a day and a half to convict him of second-degree murder, avoiding the first-degree conviction that would have put him behind bars for life.
Jail was probably good for Kevorkian, what with the free meals and clothing. Parole kept him from assisting suicides, but it didn’t keep him from hanging with Al Pacino who starred in the HBO movie of his life’s story. (The reporters’ bench at the trial had cast James Woods). And when he passed today, he did on his own, without pain, at the same hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., where he’d often dumped his patients’ lifeless bodies. Kevorkian spent his life obsessed with death and its shadows. Now he has his answers.