As the judge said to Dr Death: `No one, sir, is above the law'

Jack Kevorkian has been jailed for more than 10 years. But for the euthanasia campaigner this was not bad news - it was an ambition fulfilled. By Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Culture
Jack Kevorkian has been trying to have himself jailed - jailed or vindicated - for the best part of a decade. Now he is finally behind bars, sentenced this week to a minimum of 10 years for the murder of a terminally ill man who pleaded to be put out of his misery. "No one, sir," the judge told him firmly, but gently, "is above the law."

Jack Kevorkian, who has made the "right to die" his personal crusade, smiled through Judge Jessica Cooper's sentencing. He smiled when she refused bail, smiled when she said that any appeal would be publicly funded, and smiled when the handcuffs were snapped on to his wrists and he was led away.

It had been a bizarre encounter: the middle-aged woman judge, the white- haired and frail-looking former pathologist, and the jury of 12 men and women who had been called upon to decide whether he was a saviour or a criminal. Their verdict, and Judge Cooper's sentence, turned on a grainy amateur video, recorded by the doctor - whether in his own defence, or in the manner of an advert for his professional services, was never clarified.

The slightly blurred figure in the video looked younger by far than his 52 years, and strangely guileless. The hair and beard were brown with, so far as you could tell, not a streak of grey; the features seemed those of a man in his early forties. But there was no mistaking that he was desperately ill. His facial expression was dull and his sunken eyes darted anxiously. His head lolled back periodically on his neck. He could hardly lift his arms.

"Have you thought hard about it?" asks a disembodied voice, quite gently.

"Yes, I have," says the man, his words more like rumbles, and barely intelligible.

He is sitting in a wheelchair behind what looks like an ordinary home table. He is wearing green, striped pyjamas, or perhaps it is a jazzy shirt.

"It is the loss of your arms that really bothers you," says the voice again, with a slightly rising inflexion that expects an answer. But the moment has passed. The man cannot hold up his head long enough to answer. He is shown a picture of himself in a car - the sort of car that, until three years before, he had been racing.

"I want to make sure you understand this statement," cajoles the voice, then reads: "I, Thomas Youk, the undersigned, entirely, voluntarily, and without any reservation... without any external pressure, persuasion and duress... hereby consent to the following procedures..." The doctor, who is the owner of the voice, runs through, a little like a revision teacher, the substances and injections that will lead to "certain death".

As vigorously as he can, the patient nods and mouths "Yes".

The doctor briskly clarifies that Youk does not want to donate his organs. Another nod and "Yes". Then Youk slowly lifts one arm on to the table and signs his name.

The video had shocked America when it was shown in edited form on television last November. But what was shown in the Michigan courtroom three weeks ago was the unexpurgated version.

Jack Kevorkian, the 70-year- old retired pathologist known across the continent as "Doctor Death", was charged with intentionally killing Thomas Youk. But the national showdown over the legality and ethics of euthanasia that he had sought for so long did not turn out that way. The county assistant prosecutor, John Skrzynski, saw the death of 56- year-old Youk as a straight- up -and-down murder case, and the judge agreed.

In court, as outside it, the doctor presented an ambiguous figure. Though he looked frail, he spoke firmly, phrasing his sentences clearly and almost elegantly. He could have been almost any pensioner from the professional classes. Yet there was something sinister, even ghoulish, about him. His large ears are pointed, like those of a fantasy extraterrestrial; his gaze seems to pierce; his voice, while assured, sounds eerie.

For Jack Kevorkian, the trial was the culmination of a crusade that he had waged for a decade and led him, by his own acknowledgement, to help 133 people to die. Or to kill them, depending on your point of view.

He started in 1990, touting for people - in the words of his advert - "oppressed by fatal disease, a severe handicap, a crippling deformity... Show him proper, compelling medical evidence that you should die, and Dr Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself free of charge". His first known victim, or beneficiary - depending on your viewpoint - was 54-year- old Janet Adkins that same year. A murder charge followed, but was dropped, though his doctor's licence was suspended the next year.

Last month's trial in Pontiac was the fifth time he had been brought to book for helping people to commit suicide - a crime in Michigan as in every state except (since a referendum last year) Oregon. He was acquitted three times; the fourth was declared a mistrial. In the latest trial, Kevorkian was up for murder. Youk, who suffered from the muscle-wasting Lou Gehrig's disease, was too incapacitated to kill himself; the doctor applied the needle.

That was what clinched the verdict. That, and the doctor's boundless quest for publicity. He passed the video to CBS television's flagship documentary programme, 60 Minutes, which incorporated it into a broadcast programme about the doctor last November. In doing so, Jack Kevorkian had made what might have remained private, public, and forced the authorities' hand.

"We believe," said the doctor's lawyer-turned-adviser, David Gorosh, at the start of the trial, "that the jurors will understand the difference between murder and an act of compassion, mercy." They did and they didn't: they convicted him of murder in the second degree. Not premeditated killing, but killing none the less.

They rejected the absolutist rhetoric of the prosecutor, who had spoken of the doctor coming to Youk's home "like a medical hitman in the night with a bag of poison to do his job". But they accepted his main argument that "This case is not about the right to die; this case is about Jack Kevorkian's right to kill". And neither Kevorkian's defence - that he was acting as a physician and out of the best interests of his patient - nor the appeals of the victim's family, had any effect. By the time of sentencing, it was not a question of whether he would go to prison, but for how long.

In her statement - as firm and gentle as her conduct of the trial - Judge Cooper was philosophically uncompromising. "You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did and dare the legal system to stop you. Well, sir, consider yourself stopped." But legally she showed some indulgence, inviting him to lodge an appeal and stressing his entitlement to legal aid.

That virtually ensures that Kevorkian will fight another day. When he first faced the prospect of prison, he threatened to starve himself to death. Now, he has let it be known he wants to exhaust the appeals process first. Of his 10-year sentence, he can hardly say he was not warned. At the start of the trial, Judge Cooper enquired solicitously whether he understood that, if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. Assuring her, in his characteristically sardonic style, that he did, he quipped: "There's not much of it left."

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