'Dr. Death' Released from Jail amid Battle Over Calif. Suicide Bill

Jack Kevorkian, famed for assisting in the suicides of 130 people, was released from a Michigan prison Friday after having one year and ninth months taken off his sentence for good behavior.

The 79-year-old physician, nicknamed "Dr. Death," was sentenced to 10-25 years in jail in 1999 for second degree murder after he injected a lethal dose of potassium chloride into a patient who was suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease. Although Kevorkian has promised that he will not help in any more assisted suicides while he is on parole for the next two years, his release has raised much concern since he has shown that he is still in support of legalizing assisted suicide in states, which may influence a controversial bill in California over the same issue.

"It's got to be legalized," he told a Detroit TV station in a phone interview a few days before his release from prison in Michigan. "That's the point. I'll work to have it legalized, but I won't break any laws doing it."

Several groups against assisted suicide feel that Kevorkian may bring more voice to a bill on the floor of the California legislature, which is looking to legalize the procedure. Currently, Oregon is the only state that has made assisted suicide lawful.

"At this point, it's hard to tell what his release is going to do to the debate," explained Stephen Drake, research analyst at Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes assisted suicide, according to Focus on the Family's Citizen Link. "I think the activity you're going to see from him is on the speaking circuit."

Kevorkian's publicist has already announced that her client has received lucrative invitations to speak about the issue, and the doctor himself has revealed that he will again start to go back to his practice once his two year parole is up, although he cannot provide care for anyone older than 62 or who is disabled. And while Kevorkian can speak about the assisted suicide, he cannot give advice on how to commit it.

"Kevorkian thumbed his nose at Michigan law on this issue for years until directly killing a man put him behind bars," commented Carrie Gordon Earll, senior analyst for bioethics for Focus on the Family Action, in Citizen Link. "Hopefully some time in prison has tempered him, and he'll respect the law this time around."

Before he was convicted of murder in 1999, Kevorkian sent the video of the operation to CBS's program "60 Minutes" and challenged authorities to prosecute him.

In protest of the trial, he burned state orders and came to court wearing costumes.

"You think I'm going to obey the law?" he exclaimed shortly before he was sentenced to jail. "You're crazy."

There has been largely mixed reactions over the release of "Dr. Death," especially from those families that were directly affected by the procedure. Some have praised him for helping their family member rid themselves of their painful situation while others have had to relive past grief from years ago.

"It's like the wound that was starting to heal has been cut open again," said Tina Allerellie, whose sister turned to Kevorkian in August 1997 after suffering for years with multiple sclerosis, in the Chicago Tribune.

An AP-Ipsos poll was released this week to see what Americans thought about the situation. When asked whether the elderly physician should have been jailed, 53 percent said he should not have while 40 percent supported the court ruling.

When asked whether terminally ill patients should be legally prescribed lethal amounts of drugs, 48 percent supported the measure while 44 percent felt it should remain illegal.

In Oregon, the physician-assisted suicide law that took effect in 1997 has been reaffirmed by state voters and has survived intense legal challenges. However, the bill – which allows terminally ill, mentally competent adults to administer life-ending medication prescribed by a physician – has yet to be emulated in any other state. Bills have been defeated by lawmakers in Vermont, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Washington; ballot measures to allow physician-assisted death have lost in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

In California, where the current battleground is, organizations including Focus on the Family (FOTF) and Californians Against Assisted Suicide (CAAS) have been urging California residents to speak out to their lawmakers about opposing the assisted suicide bill that is similar to Oregon's law and is currently moving through the legislature.

"California residents should make sure their state legislators know that true compassion doesn't come in a lethal overdose or injection," said FOTF's Earll. "That's a cheap substitute for providing good end-of-life care."

In addition to objections from groups on the basis of morality issues, many anti-assisted suicide lobbyers have expressed the danger that can come from passing the upcoming California bill into law. Should it pass, it may open up the door for large scale euthanasia and doctors pressuring patients that are terminally ill to die and forego the costs that come with keeping them alive.

"While California politicians spout euphemisms about dignified death, HMOs and state health bureaucrats are chortling with glee at the cost savings they'll reap when patients are steered toward a cheap death rather than legitimate health care," wrote Jonathan Imbody, vice president of Government Relations for Christian Medical and Association, in USA Today.

In 1995, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that doctors in the Netherlands, which allows assisted suicides, euthanized about 1,000 patients without getting their "explicit request." Around 20,000 were killed by large doses of opioids, such as morphine.

"Today, our own families and dedicated doctors will continue to care for our elderly parents," added Imbody.

"This shows true compassion and unconditional love. Patients with terminal diseases will pursue life with dignity, all the while demonstrating to the healthy that life is precious and sacred," he argued.