Dying 'Dr. Death' Has Second Thoughts About Assisting Suicides

ByLARA SETRAKIAN and ABC News' Law & Justice Unit

May 26, 2006 — -- Today, on his 78th birthday, Jack Kevorkian, the man known as "Dr. Death," is slowly dying in prison.

And, according to his lawyer, Kevorkian seems to have second thoughts about helping people die.

For years, Kevorkian was the center of a national debate around the highly controversial questions surrounding physician-assisted suicide or "mercy killing:" Do the terminally ill have the right to choose when and how they die? Do doctors have the ability, even an obligation, to help them die as they choose?

Now, as he sits in jail, Kevorkian may have had a change of heart -- not about his dedication to the "death with dignity" movement, but on how he went about promoting it.

Specifically, his lawyer suggests, he questions the more than 100 suicides he said he assisted throughout the 1990s. One assisted suicide -- the death of Lou Gehrig's disease patient Thomas Youk, which was taped and broadcast on "60 Minutes" in 1998 -- earned him a prison sentence of 15 years to 20 years for second degree murder.

"He did what he did, and it brought it to public awareness [of physician-assisted suicide]," said Kevorkian's attorney, Mayer Morganroth. "He now realizes that having performed it when it was against the law, wasn't the, probably, appropriate way to go about it. … What he should have done was work towards its legalization verbally. … Pursuing that cause, and not performing it because it still was against the law."

These days, Kevorkian resides in Michigan's Lakeland Correctional Facility. Less than a week ago, Morganroth publicly stated that doctors had told Kevorkian he had less than a year to live.

Kevorkian suffers from Hepatitis C, which he contracted during service in Vietnam. Morganroth said Kevorkian's liver enzyme levels were three to four times above normal -- a clear signal his liver was failing.

In light of his failing health, Kevorkian has requested a commutation of his sentence, a pardon that would get him released from prison. Under the conditions of his current sentence, he is not eligible for parole until June 1, 2007, but he can apply for a commutation on medical grounds before then.

The Michigan State Department of Corrections confirmed to ABC News that it had received Kevorkian's latest request on Monday and that the parole board was currently reviewing it. Kevorkian made a separate request for a commutation of his sentence in November 2005, but it was rejected by the parole board one month later.

When asked to describe Kevorkian's physical and mental state, Morganroth said it was "not great. … He's quite ill."

"Certainly he does get depressed at times," he said.

Initially, Kevorkian appealed his 1999 conviction of second degree murder and tried to have his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We filed in the United States Supreme Court, they refused to hear it," Morganroth said. "Instead, of course, they took the appeal for Anna Nicole Smith, which sort of made me laugh. Not that I thought it was funny, but I thought it was ludicrous."

Morganroth thinks the parole board is stacked against Kevorkian, unduly harsh in its handling of his case. The Michigan Department of Corrections disagrees.

"That is absolutely not true. … This is very standard procedure," spokesman Russ Marlan said. "We get 100 to 300 requests for medical commutations [annually]. Very few get out."

Marlan said that the parole board recommended the release of prisoners in dire physical condition. Its internal standard has been to recommend the release of anyone whom doctors say has less than 12 months to live.

Morganroth said Kevorkian had met that standard. However, even if the parole board decides Kevorkian should stay behind bars, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm could disregard that recommendation and set him free.

"The governor could still commute a sentence, even though a parole board recommends not to," Marlan said. "But it happens very infrequently."

Granholm's spokeswoman, Liz Boyd, told ABC News that governors normally upheld parole board decisions. Granholm, Boyd said, has commuted seven sentences during her three years in office.

"In the last 30 years, every governor has followed the recommendation of the parole board," Boyd said. "The only commutations approved have been for medical."

While Kevorkian stands firmly by the cause of physician-assisted suicide, his lawyer said he would promote the movement by speaking out or writing, not by helping out in any more suicides.

"At this point, he would never perform it again," Morganroth said. "But he certainly would work towards getting it legalized wherever possible."

In a series of national polls, a majority of Americans expressed their support for Kevorkian's release. It's unclear, however, whether an outpouring of public opinion would do anything to help Kevorkian's bid for freedom.

Kevorkian, Morganroth said, "gets petitions, letters by the carload of support. I get them, too. I just tell them forward them to the governor."

ABC News' Anne Shutkin in New York contributed to this report.

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