Dr. Jack Kevorkian Dies At 83

Assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian died Friday at age 83. For more on his life, Mary Louise Kelly speaks with NPR's Don Gonyea.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

The man dubbed Dr. Death for his advocacy of assisted suicide passed away today. Jack Kevorkian was 83. He died in a Detroit area hospital after a short illness. Kevorkian claimed to have assisted in at least 130 suicides and he was jailed for it after being convicted of second degree murder. He was released from a Michigan prison in 2007 after serving eight years.

Don Gonyea is NPR's political correspondent, but for many years he was based in Detroit, and that's where he first met and interviewed Jack Kevorkian. Don Gonyea, good morning.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

KELLY: So tell me about - do you remember the very first time you met Dr. Kevorkian?

GONYEA: Absolutely. It was - it was 21 years ago this weekend. It was June 5, 1990. It was early in the morning, after he had assisted in his first suicide. And that first - you know, we never could figure out what to call them, that first patient, victim, it was, you know, it was all very gray and very knew. But it was Janet Adkins. She was 54 years old. She had been diagnosed with having the very early stages of Alzheimer's. She was a right-to-die advocate. People knew of Jack Kevorkian because he had this invention that he would be on television talking about. He'd never used it.

She sought him out. He helped her to die in a state park in Michigan. I talked to him early that morning, after getting the word. And let's just hear a little bit when I asked him about what he had done and the controversy that it stirred up.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Dr. JACK KEVORKIAN: I don't crave publicity, you know. I just want to be able to work. Leave me alone. Let me do 10, 20 cases, 100 cases. Let me establish the thing. That's all I want. But you can't do it, I guess, you know. Emotionalism causes all this.

GONYEA: And as you said, he did ultimately admit to 130, but none of us has an exact count. We don't know if there were others.

KELLY: Those 130 now - of those assisted suicides, he was never actually convicted of assisting in a suicide.

GONYEA: Exactly. After the first one, after the Janet Adkins suicide, charges were brought, but they were thrown out because the state had no law against assisting in a suicide. And he was a retired pathologist so he was able to get the drugs to do this. It was the equivalent of a lethal injection, but the person pushing the button on what looked kind of like an erector set kind of machine with bottles and tubes hanging from it. Ultimately the state passed a law. He was brought on trial in four cases. But every time the jury found him not guilty.

Again, not because he hadn't admitted violating the law, but because they would play the videotape that he would make, kind of the exit interview that he would do with this patient explaining their excruciating pain or how Lou Gehrig's disease was affecting their life or how the bone cancer was making it impossible for them to have any quality of life. He was always acquitted. He in effect had license to continue to do as many assisted suicides as he wanted.

KELLY: He did finally go to jail. He was convicted, as we said, of second degree murder. What happened?

GONYEA: He was interviewing a patient and in the middle of the interview, which he videotaped, he said why don't you just have me do the injection. The patient said fine. He videotaped himself doing the injection. He sent the tape to "60 Minutes." It says he wasn't satisfied with being able to carry out this practice that he'd started. He wanted to push the limits further. He found out what the jury's limits were. He was convicted of second degree murder.

KELLY: And just quickly, you covered all his trials. What do you think his legacy will be?

GONYEA: It's interesting because he certainly put this issue on the map in a very big way. But his critics also say he put a very scary face on it. And I think those two things compete.

KELLY: Okay. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: Pleasure.

KELLY: That's NPR's Don Gonyea talking about Jack Kevorkian, who died today, age 83. This is NPR News.

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