Video: Mercenary or criminal? Kevorkian debate continues

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    >>> dr. jack kevorkian died today. in life, he had become known for one thing, dying. helping other people doing it and getting attention for doing it for himself and for the cause. he was a media machine . he kept lawyers and reporters employed, and al pacino played him in a movie. he died of natural causes of all things at a hospital in royal oak , michigan, at the age of 83. we thought we would have dr. nancy snyderman here to talk about life and legacy here. we had a boisterous meeting on the subject in the news room today. i made the point that controlled death is not something that is talked about publicly, but it's talked about all the time about physicians and members of the family, and what kevorkian did by adding the machinery, the tubes, to some, made it a comical exercise.

    >> i think you could say he became a caricature of himself, and some would say downright vulgar, but the idea that a doctor and a patient have the idea that sometimes there are things worse than death, and they medicate their patients. sometimes doctors put their patients on something that would put them into a deep, deep sleep , and i have to say, as a cancer surgeon, many times i'm surprised we treat our animals better than human beings . but he missed the chance because of the circus and death and dying with dignity. and when he addressed the court, he was very indignantly saying, do you see me as a murderer? he really wanted to stand his ground. but in that circus and in that frenzy, i think the whole idea of death with dignity was lost. if anything, i hope it brings us back full circle to talk

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 6/3/2011 4:42:38 PM ET 2011-06-03T20:42:38

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the audacious Michigan pathologist dubbed "Dr. Death" for his role in assisting the suicides of more than 100 terminally ill people, died early Friday at a Detroit-area hospital after a brief illness.

Kevorkian, 83, died about 2:30 a.m. at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, close friend and prominent attorney Mayer Morganroth said.

Morganroth said it appears Kevorkian — who had been hospitalized since last month with pneumonia and kidney problems — suffered a pulmonary thrombosis when a blood clot from his leg broke free and lodged in his heart, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"It was peaceful. He didn't feel a thing," Morganroth told the newspaper. According to the Associated Press, he said nurses played classical music by Kevorkian's favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, before he died.

KEVORKIAN
Richard Sheinwald  /  AP File
Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine" in Michigan, Feb. 6, 1991.

Morganroth says Kevorkian was conscious Thursday night and the two spoke about leaving the hospital and getting ready for rehabilitation.

Morganroth told the Free Press that the hospital staff, doctors and nurses said Kevorkian's passing was "a tremendous loss and I agree with them. He did so much."

No plans for memorial
Morganroth told the paper that he doubts anyone will assume Kevorkian's role in assisted suicide: "Who else would take those kind of risks?"

Morganroth said there are no plans for any memorial.

Kevorkian was freed in June 2007 after serving eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. His lawyers had said he suffered from hepatitis C, diabetes and other problems, and he had promised in affidavits that he would not assist in a suicide if he was released.

Video: Kevorkian walks out of jail

In 2008, he ran for Congress as an independent, receiving just 2.7 percent of the vote in the suburban Detroit district. He said his experience showed the party system was "corrupt" and "has to be completely overhauled from the bottom up."

Pacino praised Kevorkian
His life story became the subject of the 2010 HBO movie, "You Don't Know Jack," which earned actor Al Pacino Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for his portrayal of Kevorkian. Pacino paid tribute to Kevorkian during his Emmy acceptance speech and recognized the world-famous former doctor, who sat smiling in the audience.

Pacino said during the speech that it was a pleasure to "try to portray someone as brilliant and interesting and unique" as Kevorkian and a "pleasure to know him."

Slate: Post-Kevorkian, which path for assisted suicide?

Kevorkian himself said he liked the movie and enjoyed the attention it generated, but told The Associated Press that he doubted it would inspire much action by a new generation of assisted-suicide advocates.

"You'll hear people say, 'Well, it's in the news again, it's time for discussing this further.' No it isn't. It's been discussed to death," he said. "There's nothing new to say about it. It's a legitimate ethical medical practice as it was in ancient Rome and Greece."

Videotaped death
Eleven years earlier, he was sentenced in the 1998 death of a Lou Gehrig's disease patient — a videotaped death shown to a national television audience as Kevorkian challenged prosecutors to charge him.

"The issue's got to be raised to the level where it is finally decided," he said on the broadcast by CBS' "60 Minutes."

Nicknamed "Dr. Death," Kevorkian catapulted into public consciousness in 1990 when he used his homemade "suicide machine" in his rusted Volkswagen van to inject lethal drugs into an Alzheimer's patient who sought his help in dying.

For nearly a decade, he escaped authorities' efforts to stop him. His first four trials, all on assisted suicide charges, resulted in three acquittals and one mistrial.

Murder charges in earlier cases were thrown out because Michigan at the time had no law against assisted suicide; the Legislature wrote one in response to Kevorkian. He also was stripped of his medical license.

People who died with his help suffered from cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, paralysis. They died in their homes, an office, a Detroit island park, a remote cabin, the back of Kevorkian's van.

Kevorkian likened himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi and called prosecutors Nazis, his critics religious fanatics. He burned state orders against him, showed up at court in costume, called doctors who didn't support him "hypocritic oafs" and challenged authorities to stop him or make his actions legal.

'Suffering humanity'
"Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity," Kevorkian once said. "I put myself in my patients' place. This is something I would want."

Devotees filled courtrooms wearing "I Back Jack" buttons. But critics questioned his publicity-grabbing methods, aided by his flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fieger until the two parted ways before his 1999 trial.

"I think Kevorkian played an enormous role in bringing the physician-assisted suicide debate to the forefront," Susan Wolf, a professor of law and medicine at University of Minnesota Law School, said in 2000.

"It sometimes takes a very outrageous individual to put an issue on the public agenda," she said, and the debate he engendered "in a way cleared public space for more reasonable voices to come in."

Even so, few states have approved physician-assisted suicide. Laws went into effect in Oregon in 1997 and Washington state in 2009, and a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling effectively legalized the practice in that state.

Kevorkian expresses regret
In a rare televised interview from prison in 2005, Kevorkian told msnbc he regretted "a little" the actions that put him there.

"It was disappointing because what I did turned out to be in vain. ... And my only regret was not having done it through the legal system, through legislation, possibly," he said.

Kevorkian's ultimate goal was to establish "obitoriums" where people would go to die. Doctors there could harvest organs and perform medical experiments during the suicide process. Such experiments would be "entirely ethical spinoffs" of suicide, he wrote in his 1991 book "Prescription: Medicide — The Goodness of Planned Death."

Video: Kevorkian speaks out from prison (on this page)

His road to prison began in September 1998, when he videotaped himself injecting Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Lou Gehrig's disease patient, with lethal drugs. He gave the tape to "60 Minutes."

Two months later, a national television audience watched Youk die and heard Kevorkian say of authorities: "I've got to force them to act." Prosecutors quickly responded with a first-degree murder charge.

Video: Mercenary or criminal? Kevorkian debate continues (on this page)

Kevorkian acted as his own attorney for most of the trial. He told the court his actions were "a medical service for an agonized human being."

In his closing argument, Kevorkian told jurors that some acts "by sheer common sense are not crimes."

"Just look at me," he said. "Honestly now, do you see a criminal? Do you see a murderer?"

Put euthanasia on world stage
The U.S. Supreme Court twice turned back appeals from Kevorkian, in 2002, when he argued that his prosecution was unconstitutional, and in 2004, when he claimed he had ineffective representation.

In an interview at the time Kevorkian was released from prison, Youk's brother Terrence said his brother received "a medical service that was requested and, from my point of view, compassionately provided by Jack. It should not be a crime."

But Tina Allerellie became a fierce critic after her 34-year-old sister, Karen Shoffstall, turned to Kevorkian in 1997. She said in 2007 that Shoffstall, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was struggling with depression and fear but could have lived for years longer.

"(Kevorkian's) intent, I believe, has always been to gain notoriety," Allerellie said.

Born in 1928, in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Kevorkian graduated from the University of Michigan's medical school in 1952 and became a pathologist.

Kevorkian said he first became interested in euthanasia during his internship year when he watched a middle-aged woman die of cancer. She was so emaciated, her sagging, discolored skin "covered her bones like a cheap, wrinkled frock," Kevorkian wrote.

Flea market ingredients
After building a suicide device in 1989 from parts he found in flea markets, he sought his first assisted-suicide candidate by placing advertisements in local newspapers. Newspaper and TV interviews brought more attention.

On June 4, 1990, he drove his van to a secluded park north of Detroit. After Janet Adkins, 54, of Portland, Ore., met him there, he inserted a needle into her arm and, when she was ready, she flipped the switch that released a lethal flow of drugs.

Video: Kevorkian dies at 83

He later switched from his device to canisters of carbon monoxide, again insisting patients took the final step by removing a clamp that released the flow of deadly gas to the face mask.

Kevorkian's fame — or notoriety — made him fodder for late-night comedians' monologues and sitcoms. His name became cultural shorthand for jokes about hastening the end of life.

Even admirers couldn't resist. Adam Mazer, the Emmy-winning writer for "You Don't Know Jack," got off one of the best lines of the 2010 Emmy telecast.

"I'm grateful you're my friend," Mazer said, looking out at Kevorkian. "I'm even more grateful you're not my physician."

When asked in 2010 how his own epitaph should read, Kevorkian said it should reflect what he believes to be his "real virtue.

"I am quite honest. I have trouble lying. I don't like people who lie."

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Timeline: Dr. Jack Kevorkian

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