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Kevorkian still passionate about Americans' right to die

The Baltimore Sun

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- Jack Kevorkian, the former pathologist once known as "Doctor Death," says he will never again counsel a terminally ill person on how to die. But eight years behind bars and a strict list of promises to gain parole has done nothing to mellow the blunt, passionate, combative advocate for physician-assisted suicide.

In an interview here yesterday, two days after his release from prison, Kevorkian, 79, let loose a rush of fierce words about a nation that failed to pass any new laws allowing assisted suicide while he was in prison. Again and again, he called the government "the tyrant." He called the public "sheep." He called some of his harshest critics "religious fanatics or nuts."

Kevorkian says he assisted with more than 130 suicides in the 1990s, when he drew national attention to questions about what rights people have when it comes to dying. Asked whether he would turn away a gravely ill person seeking his guidance now, he said gruffly, "I can't help them."

Kevorkian, convicted in one of those 130 cases of second-degree murder, has agreed in his parole provisions not to help anyone else commit suicide. "Sorry," he said. "Don't blame me. Blame your government for passing the laws."

Kevorkian seemed gloomy, too, about whether laws allowing assisted suicide would ever expand much beyond Oregon, the only state that has legalized the practice under certain circumstances. Of the United States becoming one of the countries to allow it, he said: "It'll be the last one, if it does ever. It's a tyrannical country."

Kevorkian also criticized the Oregon law - and other proposed legislation, including a bill being considered in the California Legislature this week - as not going far enough. Most proposed laws require ill people to administer the lethal drugs themselves, which Kevorkian said would exclude people unable to move or swallow on their own and in need of a physician's direct help.

"What they're pushing for is not complete," he said. "They always accused me of being radical. I'm not radical. I'm making sure it's complete and well done."

In the interview in his lawyer's office, Kevorkian, gaunt at 126 pounds and dressed in a worn jacket, described his plans for educating the public (about the Ninth Amendment, which says that rights not otherwise addressed by the Constitution are reserved for the people), recalled his years behind bars ("loud" and "boring"), and reflected on the deaths that drew so much focus to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted of giving a fatal injection to Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old man who had Lou Gehrig's disease. A videotape of the death was broadcast on national television, after Kevorkian gave it to 60 Minutes along with an interview in which he challenged prosecutors to charge him with a crime.

Asked whether he had any regrets about that period, Kevorkian said he mostly did not. If anything, he said, he wished he had sought different legal advice. "Everything else had to be done," he said.

In recent days, opponents of assisted suicide have expressed outrage at Kevorkian's release from prison and at the publicity that has followed. Ned McGrath, an official with the Archdiocese of Detroit, which represents 1.4 million Roman Catholics, issued a statement describing Kevorkian as a "pathological serial killer." Even some supporters of assisted suicide have sought to distance themselves from Kevorkian for his flamboyant, blunt image and for his failure to wait for the laws to change.

For the time being, Kevorkian is staying with friends in Michigan. He will live on a hospital pension and Social Security - a total of about $900 a month, said state officials, who say his incarceration cost taxpayers about $250,000.

Mayer Morganroth, his lawyer, said Kevorkian had been offered speaking fees that might bring $50,000 to $100,000, but Kevorkian said he had not made any decisions about the speaking circuit. Any talk about assisted suicide, he said, would have to be brief because the provisions of his parole prevent him from going into much detail.

"You see, I'm still in prison," he said. "I'm on a tether. I'm on a virtual tether. If you don't behave, you go back to prison."

Kevorkian, who must check in with his parole officer each week, is barred from counseling anyone on suicide, but he can advocate for laws, said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

During his time in prison, Kevorkian said, he completed two self-published books and a collection of paintings, music, limericks and philosophy on life and death.

Mainly, he said, prison was boring.

Kevorkian said he was never bothered by his "Doctor Death" nickname. "They're right in a way," he said, pointing out that his focus, as a former pathologist, was always death and dying.

"Everyone is going to die," he said. "Aren't you interested in what's going to happen?"

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