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KEVORKIAN CONVICTION UNLIKELY TO SETTLE ISSUE.

Byline: Sue Ellen Christian Chicago Tribune

Dr. Jack Kevorkian's conviction Friday on second-degree murder charges hardly silences the contentious debate over death and dying, and neither would a prison sentence guarantee an end to the very peculiar and controversial crusade the retired pathologist has waged for years.

During his early, patchwork career that took him from Detroit to Long Beach and ultimately back to the Detroit area, Kevorkian developed his singular philosophy about death and suicide.

The way that Kevorkian lived out that philosophy came to its apex in his conviction Friday for the murder of Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan man who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease.

In one sense, the verdict brings to a conclusion the decades-long crusade by Kevorkian to assist in the deaths of people who want to die. He has presided over the deaths of 130 people since 1990. But in another way, Kevorkian's conviction elevates him to a symbolic figure at risk of becoming a martyr for his cause, say his opponents.

Over Kevorkian's life, many professionals - medical and legal - have not wanted any part in the making of an ideological icon.

David Gorcyca, the Oakland County prosecutor who has often been goaded by Kevorkian to press charges, said moments after the Friday verdict that: ``It has never been my intent to participate in the martyrdom of Dr. Kevorkian.''

Vows to continue

But already Kevorkian has said he will continue to wage war for his cause - this time from prison in the form of a hunger strike. The 70-year-old faces 10 to 25 years in jail, according to prosecutors.

In Youk's death, Kevorkian escalated his self-styled right-to-die debate by himself injecting lethal chemicals into Youk instead of, as in the past, allowing the patient to administer the fatal dose. He also raised the stakes by allowing a videotape of the scene to be broadcast on a national news program, goading prosecutors to charge him with murder.

To some, Kevorkian is compassionate and courageous, a crusader well-versed in philosophy and history whose goal is the freedom from suffering by a dignified death. To others, he is akin to a paranoid cult leader who preys on the weakest and most vulnerable of the human race.

``He is in a win-win situation,'' said Tina Allerellie, whose sister had multiple sclerosis and sought Kevorkian's help in ending her life in 1997 - a decision the family knew nothing of. Allerellie and her mother traveled from Ontario to watch Kevorkian's trial. ``The longer he goes to prison, the longer he will be seen as a martyr,'' Allerellie said.

In response to the verdict in the five-day trial, the American Medical Association issued a statement saying that ``patients in America can be relieved that the guilty verdict against Jack Kevorkian helps protect them from those who would take their lives prematurely.''

But Faye Girsch, executive director of The Hemlock Society, which supports the legalization of physician aid in dying for mentally competent, terminally ill people, said Kevorkian's conviction will only incite his supporters.

``The backlash will be tremendous,'' said Girsch, who supported Kevorkian during his recent trial. ``The outrage people will have . . . they see it not as a crime but as an act of mercy.''

John Skrzynski, who prosecuted Kevorkian in Youk's murder, said Kevorkian's influence will fade.

``As a practical matter, he'll go to prison, and prisoners don't usually have press conferences. He will not be able to maintain the public interest . . . once he becomes a prisoner. In a way, he's silenced himself by doing this.''

With Youk's death, Kevorkian culminated a professional lifetime of constantly pushing the envelope on standard medical practice and legal authority.

Helping people die

In a little-known transcript of an interview by an investigator for the State of Michigan in August 1990 that resulted in the revokation of Kevorkian's medical license, the pathologist describes the evolution of his career choice as a physician who helps people die.

After completing residencies at the University of Michigan and Pontiac General Hospital, Kevorkian held various jobs. He left over what he said was a ``difference of philosophy'' with the chief of pathology at one hospital and later dropped his idea for a diagnostic clinic in a Detroit suburb because he couldn't get patient referrals.

He left a pathologist job in Long Beach because he didn't like the way the lab was being run. And he did research in ethics and eventually returned to Michigan, but couldn't get work.

In 1987, Kevorkian went back to California with the ``idea of assisting a suicide. . . . I contacted an oncologist out there. Only one out there said, Well, OK, maybe I will refer one to you. But most of them wanted to stay arm's length away from this thing. They were frightened to death of it publicly. Privately, more than half approved of what I was doing,'' Kevorkian told the investigator.

After deciding no doctor was going to let him assist in a suicide, Kevorkian returned to Michigan and designed a death device made from leftover parts he scavenged.

Kevorkian thrust himself into the public spotlight in June 1990, when he used his drug-delivery device to help Janet Adkins, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, kill herself in the back of his old Volkswagen van.

That year, he told the investigator, he was getting two or three requests from people wanting to die. He suggested to the licensing board that they limit his license to the speciality of assisting suicides. ``It's a new specialty . . . doctoring of death, so when they call me Dr. Death, doctor of death, they're absolutely correct. Doesn't offend me at all.''

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Photo

PHOTO Jack Kevorkian leaves a Michigan courtroom Friday after he was convicted of second-degree murder in the case of Thomas Youk.

Jeff Kowalsky/Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 28, 1999
Words:960
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