March 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Kevorkian Acquitted In Assisted Suicides Prosecutors Again Fail To Convict Doctor Who Admitted Helping Patients Die

Jack Lessenberry New York Times
 

A jury on Friday acquitted Dr. Jack Kevorkian of violating a Michigan law banning assisted suicides, a measure written specifically to stop him. It was Kevorkian’s second acquittal since he began his campaign for doctor-assisted suicide six years ago.

Spectators in Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jessica Cooper’s courtroom broke into applause when the jury foreman, the Rev. Donald Ott, a United Methodist bishop, read not-guilty verdicts.

Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, was accused of illegally aiding the suicides of Merian Frederick, a 72-year-old homemaker with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and of Dr. Ali Khalili, a 61-year-old Chicago doctor with bone cancer.

Both patients died in 1993 - before the law expired - by inhaling carbon monoxide in an apartment rented by Kevorkian in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.

“This is not a victory for me but for all those who are suffering,” said a beaming Kevorkian, who has acknowledged attending 27 suicides since 1990, seven of them coming after the two he was acquitted of on Friday.

“This is not for me but for the very essence of human existence, and let me give you a promise, what I do will always be for human welfare. I will not abuse it.”

This was the second time prosecutors had tried to convict Kevorkian under the Michigan law, which expired in November 1994.

In May 1994, at the first trial, a Detroit jury took two and a half days to find him not guilty in the death of Thomas Hyde, 30, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. This time the jury deliberated for eight and a half hours. If convicted, Kevorkian could have faced sentences of up to four years in prison on each of two counts.

Kevorkian, 67, openly admitted helping the patients die. At both trials, jurors were shown videotapes in which the patients explained their agony, expressed their desire to die and signed forms Kevorkian provided on camera, requesting “medically assisted suicide.”

His lawyers based their defense on an exception in the temporary statute, which was approved by the Michigan Legislature in 1992 and which took effect in February 1993.

The law said that “a person is not guilty of criminal assistance of suicide if that person was administering medications or procedures with the intent to relieve pain and discomfort and not to cause death,” even if the treatment “may hasten or increase the risk of death.”

After Friday’s verdict, several jurors said they were not trying to send any kind of message but were instead trying to puzzle out a law that has often been criticized as complicated and poorly written. One juror said the panel, which began deliberating on Thursday afternoon, first voted 8-3 for acquittal, then 10-2 before finally reaching agreement shortly after 4 p.m.

Ott, the jury foreman, said he viewed the issues in the case as important for society. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers were startled to learn on Friday that the minister wrote an article in 1993 defending assisted suicide.

“Choosing a time of one’s death in a terminal condition can be an expression of faithful living,” he wrote in a church publication.

Ruth Holmes, president of Pentek, a handwriting analysis firm that helped the defense pick the jury, said Kevorkian’s lawyers had nearly sought to have Ott excused because of fears that he might oppose their client on religious grounds.

Throughout this trial, which began on Feb. 12, Kevorkian maintained that he had never wanted either patient to die, but said that their deaths were an “unfortunate, repugnant, unavoidable” consequence of relieving their suffering.

John Skrzynski, the lead prosecutor, tried to paint Kevorkian as a renegade scientist with a ghoulish agenda. But Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s main lawyer, produced family members and friends of the deceased who testified that the doctor was compassionate and that the patients had sought him out and asked for help in ending their lives.

The defense also produced medical experts to say that Frederick and Khalili seemed to be sane, that their suffering was essentially uncontrollable and that their decision to hasten their deaths was rational, given their condition.

Despite the acquittal, Kevorkian faces another trial on April 1 for aiding the suicides of two women in 1991. While there was no law against assisting a suicide at that time, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the act could be prosecuted as a “common-law” felony.

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