Jack Kevorkian – the infamous “Dr. Death” considered a remorseless murderer by some and a compassionate physician by others – was released on parole Friday from a Michigan prison after serving eight years.
The frail 79-year-old, wearing his familiar light-blue cardigan and a tie over a button-down shirt and dress slacks, walked slowly out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Mich., and grinned cheerfully.
Telling a crowd of reporters outside the detention center that leaving prison was one of the “high points of life,” the retired pathologist waved goodbye as he and attorney Mayer Morganroth stepped into a white van and drove away.
In December, the Michigan Parole Board granted his request to leave prison early – after eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder – because of his good behavior and a promise not to conduct more assisted suicides.
But Kevorkian, who struggles with heart and lung disease and Hepatitis C, plans to keep fighting state laws that prevent physician-assisted suicide.
“He has been clear: He will not break the law. But he will do what he can to change it,” Morganroth said.
Kevorkian, who will be on parole for two years, is expected to check in with his parole officer weekly. Although he is allowed to publicly advocate his views, state corrections officials say the physician cannot help others build the so-called suicide machine he had used.
Kevorkian, who plans to live with friends in the greater Detroit area, has been offered public speaking engagements, “which he is considering as he has bills to pay and only expects to receive a modest pension.”
In 1998, Kevorkian was accused – and later convicted – of second-degree murder after injecting lethal drugs into Thomas Youk, 52, an Oakland County, Mich., man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Youk’s death was recorded on a homemade videotape that Kevorkian sent to the TV news show “60 Minutes,” which broadcast it. In the tape, Kevorkian dared the legal system to stop him.
At the time, Kevorkian claimed he had assisted in at least 130 suicides of terminally or chronically ill people.
Before Kevorkian’s conviction, hundreds of people flocked to Michigan to meet with him. He was heralded by some right-to-die proponents as a brave leader who was willing to sacrifice his own freedom to fight for terminally ill Americans to choose the time of their death.
But as Kevorkian more aggressively challenged law enforcement, many longtime supporters began to distance themselves. They sought to divert the focus of the debate from his espousal of assisted suicide to a more politically moderate push for an active role for patients in their own end-of-life care.
On Friday, critics were infuriated at the pathologist’s early release.
“This is a man who is known to have killed more people than any other person in Michigan’s history, and he’s being set free two years early,” said Paul A. Long, vice president of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official public policy arm of the state’s Catholic Church. “He’s promised that he would not break the law. But he made those promises through the 1990s, and he never lived up to them.”
Even some people within the national right-to-die movement have expressed nervousness about what Kevorkian will do now.
“He was a profound symbol of the covert and clandestine process of dying. But we don’t really need that kind of championship these days,” said Barbara Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit group that helps people obtain and use life-ending drug prescriptions. “What we need are sane, rational laws.”
Only Oregon has a law that allows people, under specific circumstances, to obtain a prescription from their doctor for a lethal amount of a drug.