Covering Kevorkian, From The First Suicides On

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist who assisted suicides, died Friday. NPR's Don Gonyea recalls the 10 years he spent covering Kevorkian, including his first interview with him in the hours after Kevorkian used his so-called suicide machine for the first time.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the pathologist who assisted in suicides, died yesterday. NPR's Don Gonyea opens his reporter's notebook.

DON GONYEA: I first became aware of Jack Kevorkian many, many months before he helped his first person die. He lived in Royal Oak, Michigan. I lived in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was kind of the neighborhood eccentric. You'd see him at the grocery store. Except, we knew he had this invention, something he called a suicide machine. And it was kind of this erector set contraption with a metal rack and a broomstick top and bags of liquid and tubes all over the place. And over on one side, a push button hooked up to a little electric motor and a battery and that's the button you would push to start the fluids flowing.

We never thought he'd use it. Then one day he did. This is a videotape that he made where hes giving instructions to the woman who would become the first person he helped die.

(Soundbite of videotape)

Dr. JACK KEVORKIAN: Now, Janet, do you know youve seen - you know what I -you're asking me to do? Do you realize that?

Ms. JANET ADKINS: Yes.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Okay. Do you want help from me?

Ms. ADKINS: I do.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Do you realize that I can make arrangements for everything and you have to do it?

Ms. ADKINS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: That you have to push the button.

Ms. ADKINS: I understand.

GONYEA: That's Dr. Kevorkian talking to 54-year-old Janet Adkins. She would become his first. She'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

GONYEA: Much of Jack Kevorkians public life took place in courtrooms, because he was on trial a lot; eventually ended up going to jail. He was always defiant. He often clashed with prosecutors as he does here.

(Soundbite of excerpt of cross-examination])

DR. KEVORKIAN: Laws like that have been passed throughout history in the Dark Ages.

Mr. TIMOTHY KENNY (Prosecuting attorney): And you just view, once again, that this is another of the Dark Ages laws, correct?

DR. KEVORKIAN: Oh, absolutely. It will be so seen in 10 years. I look at the law like it will be seen in 10 years.

GONYEA: So now that hes gone theres a story that sums him up best for me. It goes back to that very first time I met him, the morning after the first suicide. I told them that everybody I had talked to since Id heard I'd asked about it and that I was hearing a couple of things. A lot of people were appalled, a lot of people supported him. But I said even some of those people who support you think youre kind of a Dr. Frankenstein character. He looked at me and he leaned in very close - six inches away - in his dark apartment and said, have you read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? I nodded that I had. After a pause he said, then you know Frankenstein wasn't the monster; society was the monster. I got a little chill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: But that moment sums up his intellect, his defiance and his theatricality.

I'm Don Gonyea.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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