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Jack Kevorkian Trials: 1994-99

From 60 Minutes To 10-25 Years

By 1999, it was estimated that Kevorkian had assisted in at least 130 suicides over a nine year period of time. Murder charges against him had been thrown out of court twice. Three charges of assisted suicide had come to trial, with acquittals resulting each time. A fourth had ended in a mistrial. In every case, the jury had decided in his favor based on heart-wrenching testimony depicting the pain and agony of those Kevorkian felt compelled to help die. In 1997, as he took office, Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca had dropped 13 of the charges filed by his predecessor Richard Thompson, because he found there was not enough evidence to bring the cases to trial successfully.

On September 17, 1998, Kevorkian, apparently determined to force society to deal with the issue of assisted suicide, videotaped the death of 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who was severely incapacitated with Lou Gehrig's disease. But this time, rather than setting up a device to allow Youk to trigger his own death, Kevorkian himself injected a drug into Youk's veins. He then offered the videotape to the CBS 60Minutes television program, which aired it in November.

Prosecutor David Gorcyca pounced on the case, charging Kevorkian with first-degree murder, assisted suicide, and delivering a controlled substance (being no longer certified as a doctor, Kevorkian could not legally prescribe or administer drugs). When Kevorkian insisted on acting as his own lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger stepped down succeeded by his associate, David Gorosh.

By the beginning of the trial in March 22, 1999, the prosecutors, hoping to avoid jury-swaying depictions of pain and suffering, withdrew the assistedsuicide charge. Instead, the jury listened to Kevorkian testify that his goal was not to commit murder but to gain a forum for assisted suicide. It viewed the 60 Minutes videotape but heard from only three witnesses: two policemen (respondents to the 911 call about Youk's death) and Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. L.J. Dragovic, who said an injection of potassium chloride caused Youk's heart to stop.

Judge Jessica Cooper denied Kevorkian's motion to allow relatives of Youk to testify that the death was a mercy killing. She advised the jury it could return a verdict of first-degree or second-degree murder or manslaughter. As the jury deliberated, Kevorkian withdrew as his own attorney. On Friday, March 26, the former doctor was found guilty of second-degree murder and of delivering a controlled substance.

Cooper sentenced the 71-year-old to 10-25 years in jail, with a concurrent of 3 to 7 years on the drug charge. "You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you," she told the defendant. "Well, sir, consider yourself stopped."

Saying that he had been ill-advised by Gorosh in presenting his defense, Kevorkian requested a new trial. It was refused. As he entered Oaks Correctional Facility as prisoner no. 284797, the state of Michigan, which can legally take up to 90 percent of a prisoner's assets to pay for living costs, siezed a lump sum of $31,155 from Kevorkian's bank account and $364.50 per month from his hospital pension. He was allowed to keep some $77,000 in his legal defense fund.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brovins, Joan, and Thomas H. Oehmke. Dr. Death: Dr. Jack Kevorkian's Rx: Death. Hollywood, Fla.: Lifetime Books, 1993.

Brown, Judy. The Choice: Seasons of Loss and Renewal after a Father's Decision to Die. Berkeley, Calif.: Conari, 1995.

Dzwonkowski, Ron, ed. The Suicide Machine: Understanding Jack Kevorkian, the People Who Came to Him, and the Issue of Assisted Suicide. Detroit: Detroit Free Press, 1997.

Kevorkian, Jack. Prescription: Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death. Amherst: N.Y.: Prometheus, 1991.

Loving, Carol. My Son, My Sorrow. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon, 1998.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Jack Kevorkian Trials: 1994-99 - The Public Debate Over Assisted Suicide Begins, Michigan Suspends Kevorkian's License, The Severely Iii Ask Kevorkian For Help