Dr Death defends himself in `mercy or murder' trial

JACK KEVORKIAN, the United States' most prominent and outspoken advocate of euthanasia, went on trial yesterday for murder in a court case widely seen as a showdown between advocates and opponents of mercy killing. Dr Kevorkian, a frail- looking 70-year-old, who is a retired pathologist, convinced the judge, Jessica Cooper, that he should be allowed to represent himself in court, a right she granted, subject to warnings.

"Do you understand that you could spend the rest of your life in prison?" she asked him. To which he responded: "There is not much [of my life] left," and insisted that there were points that he could convey better than his team of lawyers. He did not, however, repeat a threat made after his arrest to starve himself to death if sent to jail.

The charge against Dr Kevorkian is first-degree murder. But the victim, as the doctor is expected to argue, was an entirely willing participant: 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who had pleaded for death as relief from the last stages of the progressive Lou Gehrig's disease. The case is being heard by the Oakland County court in Pontiac near Detroit, close to Waterford Township, where the Youk family lives.

The judge's decision to let Dr Kevorkian defend himself gives him the sort of dramatic duel with the justice system that he has sought for years. Four times he has stood trial, but each time the charge was assisting a death, not murder. Three times he was acquitted; the fourth time a mistrial was declared.

This time, he and the court have conclusive evidence that the doctor administered the fatal injection himself, not the patient. He made a videotape of Mr Youk's death last September, including the injection of the lethal drugs and the moment at which life passed from Mr Youk's body. The tape was shown on US network television in November and provoked fierce controversy.

For Dr Kevorkian - known as Dr Death - who says he has helped more than 130 terminally ill people to die in the past 10 years, the tape is proof that euthanasia, at least in this case, is mercy and not murder. Mr Youk is seen debilitated and begging to die. Members of his immediate family are seen giving his decision their blessing.

The videotape will be evidence for both sides. In his opening statement yesterday, counsel for the prosecution argued that Dr Kevorkian had injected the patient with a substance that he knew would kill him. "He broke the law," he said firmly. "He committed a crime."

If the jury acquits, assisted suicide is de facto legalised in Michigan; if not, anyone who can be proved to have helped someone to die could theoretically be convicted of murder.

Except in Oregon, which approved a limited euthanasia law in a 1997 referendum, mercy killing is not legal in the US. And while pressure for legalisation has been growing, judicial clarity is something many doctors feel that they and their patients would be better off without.