'Doctor of death' acquitted of aiding cripple's suicide

WASHINGTON - Dr Jack Kevorkian was cleared by a Detroit jury yesterday of aiding the death of a man who committed suicide last year, writes Patrick Cockburn.

The verdict is a blow to a special law on assisted suicide passed by Michigan last year with the specific intention of curbing Dr Kevorkian's activities.

The man who committed suicide was Thomas Hyde, 30, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, which left him largely speechless and unable to feed himself in a wheelchair. He died through inhaling carbon monoxide gas through a mask placed over his face by Dr Kevorkian, who also supplied the gas and tubing.

Mr Hyde was the 17th of 20 people who have died in the presence of Dr Kevorkian, a retired Michigan pathologist, in the last four years. The law under which he was tried carried a penalty of four years and a fine of dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,300). His lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, said the verdict 'drives a stake through the heart of the law against assisting suicide'.

Dr Kevorkian was aided by Mr Fieger's claim that Mr Hyde had died in a different county from the one in which Dr Kevorkian was being tried. A legal loophole also says that a doctor can prescribe medication to ease suffering, even if it might lead to death. Although his defence of Dr Kevorkian was based on technical matters, Mr Fieger ended his defence with an emotional plea, saying: 'Isn't it a strange country that at the point when death is sure, that we as people become criminals when we want to end our suffering?'

A jubilant Dr Kevorkian, asked if there were others waiting his help to die, said: '15 right now'. He would not say, however, if he would help them before new medical rules are established in Michigan. Three of the four assisted suicide cases in which he was charged have already been dismissed by judges who said the law was unconstitutional. Dr Kevorkian says he wants the right to take his own life.

Dr Kevorkian's televised trial has helped make him a national figure. Heidi Fernandez, Mr Hyde's girlfriend, gave testimony in favour of Dr Kevorkian whom she said was the only doctor willing to help them.

Despite Dr Kevorkian's willingness to assist people to commit suicide Americans normally prefer to use a gun to kill themselves. In 1991 firearms were used by 18,526 Americans to commit suicide - slightly more than the number of homicides committed with a gun. Dr Kevorkian had earlier proposed setting up a medical speciality to be known as 'obidiatry' to help terminally ill patients to end their lives.

(Photograph omitted)

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