By Jack Lessenberry
copyright Vanity Fair, July 1994
Jack Lessenberry covers Dr. Kevorkian and the assisted suicide issue for The New York Times and many other publications.
New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/FRONTLINE
He has been hailed as the champion of the right-to-die movement and denounced as a ghoulish cheerleader for suicide. Jack Kevorkian has helped 20 people kill themselves, and now that he has been acquitted in the assisted suicide of Patient No. 17, he says he has only just begun. JACK LESSENBERRY enters the strange world of Dr. Death.
"I want to be convicted!" Jack Kevorkian howls. After sitting calmly in Detroit Recorder's Court all day while his lawyer and the prosecution haggled over selecting a jury, he has been ignited by a deputy who ordered him to take his hat off after he left the cavernous basement courtroom.
Now, out of public sight, in a drab little windowless room, he jams his porkpie onto his head. "I should walk up to the bench just like in the movie Ghandi and say, I have violated your law and if you have any respect for your system you will give me the harshest penalty possible," he says, finger jutting, eyes flashing. Kevorkian's pipelayer father originally fitted him with the name of an ancient Armenian warrior, Murad, and genetic memory seems to be kicking in.
Four high-priced jury consultants who have donated their time and flown at their own expense to Detroit stare with alarm at the apostle of physician-assisted suicide, who is yelling loudly enough to be heard through the closed oak door, startling a skulking photographer. Dr. Death pitching a fit is not a pretty picture. Paulette Taylor's jaw actually sags at the sight. Her boss, Howard Varinsky, and Paul Tieger are caught in the headlights. Only Dr. Louis Genevie, who looks like a Weimar finance minister --round glasses, thinning hair, a sober suit--manages a tiny smile.
The first time they met Jack Kevorkian, this very morning, they found him warm and witty. In the courtroom, he has shown genuine tenderness to several of the "survivors" of his suicide patients, as they call themselves. But the consultants have never seen the inventor of the suicide machine, whom most of them revere as a hero of modern medicine, in what his attorney, alter ego, and part-time parent, Geoffrey Nels Fieger, calls his "real asshole" mode.
Taylor says timidly that she thinks they have a good jury, that they have helped stack the jury box with supporters.
"Ha!" Kevorkian snaps. "This trial is fixed. I know that. They are all bought and paid for. But that's all right. That'll be even better to expose how totally corrupt this society is.
"Besides," he adds, "I can paint in jail." After having put down his brush nearly 30 years ago, he's taken it up again, creating several grotesque, surreal canvases of suffering. His lawyer is hoping to auction them off for $100,000 each, to help fund a petition drive to make physician-assisted suicide a constitutional right in Michigan.
While his client raves, Fieger looks on with a sour grin that seems half disgusted, half amused. He's seen this many times.
The diatribe turns to a key videotape that the judge may not allow them to play. "I don't care," Kevorkian says. "I'll just go on the stand and describe everything it says."
When he is told he may not be able to do that either, he goes nova. "Nazi Germany was a pretty nice place to live compared to this dump!"
Welcome to what, with typical modesty, Geoffrey Fieger has called "the trial of the century," the courtroom test of Michigan's assisted-suicide law. Everyone knows that the man his attorney sometimes affectionately calls "this little Armenian doctor" has openly and defiantly violated the law. Twenty times he has stood by as one of his patients breathed in carbon monoxide or pushed a switch that sent a shot of potassium chloride to the heart. The last five made their final exits after the law took effect on February 25, 1993.
Now he is on trial for assisting one of those five, a trial he and his lawyer have relentlessly sought for eight months. In this same room, in 12 days' time, 12 jurors will decide whether Jack Kevorkian will go to jail for helping a dying man die.
Actually, as Fieger would put it in his opening argument, "humanity and compassion are on trial. You will be deciding one of the great issues in the struggle for human rights....His intent is never to kill someone, but only to reduce suffering. That is Dr. Jack Kevorkian. That is the man who stands charged before you. You will decide how much suffering all of us must endure before we go into that good night --some of us, not so gently."
Kevorkian heard little of the oration. To him, it is all a farce and a game. "I am only going along with it to make Geoffrey feel good," he whispered later. While Fieger thundered, trying to set the stage for a decision as momentous as Roe v. Wade, his client, the man who single-handedly made physician-assisted suicide a national issue, intently studied vocabulary lists of Japanese verbs.
Kevorkian & Fieger. Fieger & Kevorkian. The two of them are now as firmly bounded up with each other as Vladimir and Estragon. Existential heroes as vaudeville, 1994.
"He would have been put in jail and forgotten --long ago-- without me," Fieger confided, scratching his black Maine-coon cat, Mina, in his TV room last February as the pair began gameplanning this trial. His orange-point Siamese, Taka and Tsao, sprawled at his feet. "He's a guy with great wisdom and no common sense."
"Basically, sometimes I think I could do it better," countered Kevorkian, son of survivors of the century's first holocaust. "I think maybe I would have been a good lawyer. You might say Geoff's the short-range tactician. I am a better strategist."
"Right," Fieger replied sarcastically. "His idea of a strategy would be 'Uh, uh, I'm going to do one [a suicide] in the middle of the road!' What a goofball! You can see why the Turks went after the Armenians!"
To the casual eye, Kevorkian and Fieger seem nothing alike. The attorney is six feet two and fighting a paunch, but, at 43, still has more than a touch of his high-school football lineman's good looks, topped by collar-length blondish hair, thinning in the back. Fieger, who has made millions in medical-malpractice suits, drinks amazing quantities of Veuve Cliquot and is an outrageous and occasionally obnoxious flirt. When asked whether Clarence Darrow is his hero, he answers, "When I look in the mirror I see Geoff Fieger." But he does have a secret hero: John Lennon. Imagine a personality with the counterculture values of the Beatles and the imperial generosity of Lyndon Johnson, toss in a jawline out of a Hogarth engraving, and you've got Geoffrey Fieger.
Kevorkian is five feet seven or so ("I'm shrinking," he says), and wears clip-on ties and threadbare cardigan sweaters, some of which date back to his college days at the University of Michigan in the 1940s. He likes simple food and not much of it; he once wrote a cheery book, Slimmeriks and the Demi-Diet, in which he suggests eating small amounts all the time, describes what greasy yellow fat looks like in a corpse, and shows his poetic muscle. ("The fat of a calorie consumer / Is a lot like a 'whole body tumor' / With a grim frown endure it / Or slim down and 'cure' it / But keep a well fed sense of humor.")
Kevorkian is of the old school, where guys don't show physical affection. When a woman locally famous for her beauty squealed "I just have to hug you!" and grabbed him, he stiffened like shirt cardboard with rigor mortis. "I'm not the kind of guy who has best friends," he says, "so I wouldn't say Geoffrey is my best friend."
Fieger, by contrast, has been known to kiss men on the lips in fits of exuberance. He finds it easy to tell you he loves Kevorkian, and he openly exhibits his affection. Last winter, Dr. Death's old building --which, unbeknownst to him, was a turn-of the century funeral home-- was slated for demolition. When Fieger learned Kevorkian was being forced to leave his windowless apartment decorated with Salvation Army furniture and belongings stowed in boxes, the attorney promptly moved his man into a beautiful lakefront ranch home he owns in tony West Bloomfield Township. He charges his client the same for rent as he charges him for legal services: nothing. But Kevorkian still grumbles. "I'm not a romantic. These geese, this water...I like my apartment better."
Still, under the skin, Kevorkian and Fieger are soul brothers. They take what they do seriously, but get a major-league charge out of thumbing their noses at the world. Both of them are, in different ways, cases of arrested development. During the trial, a wire-service reporter remembers a story Fieger once told about a bad day at the beach and, when he looks grumpy, asks him if he might have stepped on another sea-urchin spine. "No, it's in an orifice --would you like to inspect it?" he asks the stunned woman in a voice loud enough for half the courtroom to hear.
Just before the trial, the client was taken to lunch at a popular bistro with Patricia Hill Burnett, a society portrait painter in the John Singer Sargent tradition. Kevorkian brought snapshots of his infamous paintings, which depict such merry scenes as a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse and Santa crushing a baby in a manger. Burnett had been warned, however, and failed to be properly shocked. Frustrated, Kevorkian pointed to a parfait on the dessert tray. "Don't eat that," he shouted, "it looks like pus!"
One thing is sure: whatever happens in this trial and afterward, Geoffrey Fieger will be there as Jack Kevorkian's pit bull, in much the way Thomas Henry Huxley saved Charles Darwin's hide from the entrenchment of the 19th century.
Yet the secret of their relationship is that it was almost destroyed eight months earlier by the very event that triggered this trial.
On that beautiful summer morning, everything almost came crashing down. Everything was over for Thomas Warnock Hyde, who lay dead on his back on a cot in the immaculate interior of Jack Kevorkian's rusty white 1968 Volkswagen van. Hyde's body was still warm, but gravity was causing pools of bright pink blood, blood turned pink from carbon-monoxide poisoning, to collect just under the skin of the 30-year-old man's wasted form. "He was a skeleton with skin spray-painted on," his fiancee, Heidi Fernandez, would later testify.
Everything was calm in the back of the van.
But outside, in the middle of a road on the tranquil, leafy island of Belle Isle, a thousand-acre park in the Detroit River where toddlers are taken to the zoo and old men fish for perch, the early morning was turning into utter chaos.
"What are the media doing here?" Kevorkian screamed as two thoroughly bewildered police officers looked on. "You brought the media, didn't you?! You told the media!"
When Fieger denied it, Kevorkian yelled, "YOU'RE FIRED! I'll get a public defender. That's all I need in this corrupt society."
James D. Arthurs, the commanding officer of the Harbor Master police station, recovered his composure enough to ask the suicide doctor a question. "I said, 'Do you have a victim in that vehicle?' And he replied that he did." Arthurs looked up. There were little curtains covering the windows of the van. He looked around and saw the source of Dr. Death's anger: a TV crew from the NBC newsmagazine show Now was spilling out of a blue van, setting up a tripod.
Arthurs saw little need to open the back of Kevorkian's van, especially with the cameras about: he knew what the doctor did and never doubted his efficiency. Arthurs would later tell the court, "I ordered the crime scene moved to a position where I could control access to the vehicle....I wanted to control the crowd situation," as if controlling the situation is something anyone can ever do when Jack Kevorkian is involved. "I instructed Dr. Kevorkian to drive his vehicle around behind the [Harbor Master] station." Kevorkian did so -- and then disappeared into the island's tiny police station.
He was followed by a suddenly unemployed Geoffrey Fieger, who faced the prospect of having his most famous and least lucrative client inflict on him the greatest embarrassment of his career.
"Finally, I relented. I reinstated him," Kevorkian said over lunch during the trial. "You know, Geoffrey's big fault is that he just can't say no to publicity."
Fine start to what was supposed to be the legal challenge of the century.
Thirty-eight months to the day had passed since Janet Adkins, an Oregon woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, had lain back on the same pallet in the same white van. "Have a nice trip," Kevorkian had told her. She flipped the switch on the suicide machine, releasing a lethal dose of thiopental and potassium chloride into her bloodstream. "Thank you, thank you," she whispered. She leaned forward as if to kiss him, the seldom kissed Kevorkian recalled, and fell back.
Jack Kevorkian expected to get a nice article in a medical journal out of that. He got a murder charge and international notoriety instead. He also --in his 60's, after decades of floundering around as an itinerant pathologist, painter, moviemaker, and zany inventor of a paddle-wheel bicycle and disposable sports sun visors --had found his true mission in life: to stop the suffering that no one else would.
That was June 4, 1990. Nearly a year and a half later, two more patients --Sherry Miller, a sweet woman with multiple sclerosis, and Marjorie Wantz, who had mysterious vaginal pain no doctor could treat-- died together on a cabin in a state park.
Kevorkian was charged with murder those three times, murder though they had the famous videotapes, footage that would make the most heart-rending television in the world, tapes on which these poor people beg the doctor to help them die. Fieger faced down the prosecutors, went before the judges, bellowed and screamed for the little man who was pushing the envelope of medicine.
And the judges ruled and said, no, this is not murder, and no, this state has no law against assisting suicide. The "medical politicians," as Kevorkian calls them, suspended his license anyway. He didn't care, and he wouldn't stop. Can't buy potassium chloride without a medical license? Fine. Carbon monoxide will do.
Another woman died in May 1992, another in September, and then Catherine Andreyev, the aristocratic-looking descendant of a White Russian family, in November.
Incensed, the Michigan legislature said: No more. In December 1992, as some members sang "Hit the road, Jack," they passed a law banning assisted suicide, making it a felony punishable by up to four years in prison.
But Kevorkian's foes had screwed up. The bill had been so clumsily devised and hastily written that the Michigan House Judiciary counsel warned it was bound to be declared unconstitutional. The legislature passed it anyway, and Republican governor John Engler --whom Fieger calls "certifiably the most evil and malignant stupid governor in history"-- enthusiastically signed it. The law would take effect March 30.
Jack Kevorkian, who had helped six people die over the previous two and a half years, promptly presided over nine suicides within eight weeks. The angry lawmakers moved up the date the law would be enforced to February 25.
Then the suicides stopped.
Nothing happened for nearly three months, until one Sunday morning in May, when the cancer-ravaged body of Ron Mansur was found alone in his Detroit real-estate office, with a tank of carbon monoxide and Dr. Jack Kevorkian close by.
Fieger and Kevorkian refused to speak. Prosecutors were perplexed. "Unless you have an open admission or witnesses, it's not as easy as you might think to prosecute somebody for assisting in a suicide," says John D. O'Hair, a soft-spoken, white-haired gentleman who happens to be not only the Wayne County prosecutor but also the leading establishment force in the state for legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
Within days, Wayne county Circuit Court judge Cynthia Stephens struck down the law on the ground that it was fatally flawed. Michigan's constitution is designed to prevent one bill from having two different purposes, mainly so that lawmakers can't, say, sneak tax increases into a bill proclaiming state cherry week. The assisted-suicide bill had been intended to set up a state commission to make legal recommendations; the provision making the act a felony had been tacked on at the last minute.
But Michigan's attorney general promptly requested a stay of the order, meaning that the law remained in force until the Michigan Court of Appeals, one of the most backlogged and dilatory appellate courts in the nation, could render a verdict.
Kevorkian was frustrated. "No more games," he told Fieger. "I know this is right and I don't have forever." For one thing, Kevorkian didn't think he had that much longer to live. He is now 66; his parents were both in their 60s when they died.
Time for a showdown.
For years, Fieger had insisted that "no jury will ever convict Jack Kevorkian." Indeed, polls consistently showed Kevorkian with strong support in Michigan, generally around 60 percent. And his fame is nationwide: 94 percent of Americans know who he is; only the president and First Lady have higher name recognition. "You can't talk against him to most people, especially if they've had someone die in horrible agony," says State Senator John Kelly, a maverick liberal on most issues.
Kelly, who supports physician-assisted suicide in general, thinks Kevorkian has the psychology of a serial killer. (Asked about this, the pathologist says, "I sure am. I polished off a box of Cheerios this morning.") The senator fears that in a world made safe for Kevorkian it won't be too long before society's misfits are subtly encouraged to strap on a mask. But many of Kelly's constituents in the moneyed enclaves of the Grosse Pointes have no such worries. "They get mad and say, 'You don't know how my Uncle Louie suffered. No dog should have to suffer like Uncle Louie,' and they see Kevorkian as the only one offering any relief for the Uncle Louies of this world," says Kelly, who now is running for the U.S. Senate. "You start trying to talk to them about pain management and they yell at you: 'You didn't see my Uncle Louie!'"
What if Jack Kevorkian openly defied the law, staged an assisted suicide, and was arrested, charged, and put on trial? What if a jury of Uncle Louie's nephews and nieces refused to find him guilty? "Where would they be then with this thing they call a law?" Kevorkian asked.
Geoffrey Fieger agreed. But it had to be the right case. Thomas Hyde, they figured, was it.
On August 4, 1993, a year had passed since Hyde, a man who was starting to get his life together after a rocky start (a robbery conviction, time in the state pen), found out --at the age of 29-- that he had one of the most horrifying diseases imaginable. He'd been dropping his hammer at work, slurring his speech after only one drink, falling off his motorcycle. He went for tests. The doctors, six of them, took him into a room. He had Lou Gehrig's disease, they told him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis --something that would kill him, probably by causing him to choke to death on his own saliva in a helpless, terrified rage. Long before that, the fiercely independent Hyde, a landscaper and construction worker who loved being outdoors, would, little by little, lose the ability to walk and go to the bathroom himself. He would be in constant pain from severe muscle cramps.
Perhaps even worse, his mind would remain clear. He would be fully aware of what was happening to the rest of him...right up until the moment he choked to death.
And modern medicine, essentially, couldn't do a thing.
With great effort, Hyde, visiting his family down in Florida one last time, typed out a letter to Jack Kevorkian on June 22, 1993. "Don't get your hopes up, honey," his fiancee, Heidi Fernandez, told him maternally. "You know, it's illegal now."
Nine days later the phone rang. That night, Kevorkian arrived with his "think tank": his doting sister, Margo Janus, and Neal Nicol, a medical-supply salesman who sells Kevorkian carbon monoxide and plays poker with him every other week. The men had met at Pontiac General Hospital in the 60s, when Kevorkian was experimenting with blood transfusions from fresh corpses, something he hoped would be used to save lives on battlefields in Vietnam.
Nicol, a stocky, good-looking 55-year-old always ready with a smile and a risque joke, was then a hospital worker who became one of Kevorkian's willing guinea pigs; once, Nicol got such a severe case of hepatitis from cadaver blood that his eyeballs turned orange.
Now Jack Kevorkian was an international celebrity, though he still shopped for clothes at the Salvation Army. "When I saw Jack walk into our apartment that first time it was like a Beatle walked in," Fernandez recalls, tossing a mane of long, dark hair. Her father's family came from Spain, and when wearing black, as at the trial, she cuts a figure out of the court of Aragon: when somber, she is a perfect La Dolorosa of suffering.
Few people can watch the videotape made that night without being deeply affected. Many of the jurors cried when Fieger managed to get it played during the trial. No one who has ever seen it has the slightest doubt that Thomas Hyde wanted the help that only Kevorkian would give. "My idea....I want to end this," he says slowly, painfully forcing every word out of his mouth. "I want to die."
Later, he laboriously scrawls on a legal pad, "I feel like the main character in the book Johnny Got His Gun," and pitches onto Heidi's bosom, sobbing uncontrollably.
"You're not alone, Tom," Kevorkian says soothingly. "You're not alone. You're going to get what you want."
Thirty-four days later, Tom did. Jack Kevorkian helped him into the white van, put an oxygen mask on his thin face, and connected it to a tank of carbon monoxide with a plastic tube. Kevorkian put a clip on the tube and tied a string to the clip and around the fingers on Hyde's left hand. "Are you sure?" the doctor asked.
The young man smiled a twisted smile, croaked out something that sounded like "I'm fine," and jerked the clip off the tube that led to the black canister.
But his angel of mercy was shaken when Hyde let out a long, loud moan as the slow flow of gas began to trickle through the tube.
Kevorkian's worst fear has always been that he will be discovered in the middle of an assisted suicide by someone who will try to stop it. Why the dying man moaned is unknown, but it's unlikely that he was in any discomfort from the carbon monoxide. "The sensation that a person would have would be limited to the first few minutes," Dr. Bader Cassin, the medical examiner who did an autopsy on Hyde later that day, testified at the trial. "I would include perhaps no reaction or no sensation whatsoever. A person might simply appear to fall asleep."
The moans soon stopped. Twenty minutes later, pressing against the carotid artery in Hyde's neck, Kevorkian could feel no pulse. The retired pathologist wore no watch and had no stethoscope, but he knew the man was dead. After all, Kevorkian was quite probably, as his old friend Nicol puts it, "the best medical authority on carbon-monoxide poisoning in the world."
"I would have learned so much more if I could have done it properly!" Kevorkian later complained over lunch. Properly, with instruments hooked up to the patient to learn as much possible about that last ride. "We really don't know anything about death," Kevorkian the scientist said, eating a plate of French fries and leaving just the tips - the part he touched with his fingers - on the plate. "To look at a body on a slab, what does that tell us? Nothing! I've always wanted to learn more about it. You've gotta know what death is to know life!"
Janet Adkins was, for many, the most controversial of the patients, because of the question of her mental competence. Thomas Hyde was perhaps the easiest call; even the prosecutor agreed his end was merciful. But the manner of the death was also symbolic. After Adkins had died in the van, 15 more people had said their final thank-yous to Dr. Kevorkian for what his lawyer calls "providing them a soft landing out of this world." Along the way, he had been arrested, charged with murder, interviewed (twice) by Barbara Walters, and made the cover of Time.
But no one else had ever died in the van. "Now it's come full circle," Fieger crowed. The crusade that had started with the van --because no other place could be found in 1990 for Adkins to die-- had reached its climax when Thomas Hyde died in the same place.
"Take that book down!" Geoffrey Fieger commands in the modest suburban office local reporters call "the Fiegerdome." The small room is crammed with books, ceramic cats, pictures of Fieger, pictures of Kevorkian, pictures of Fieger and Kevorkian, and a prototype of the famous suicide machine used before Kevorkian lost the license that enabled him to buy deadly drugs that fueled it.
Fieger talks on three phone lines at once, sings the Beatles' "Savoy Truffle" under his breath, rips the head off of one of his younger vassal lawyers, and barks orders at Karen and Julie and Linda and Tammy and legions of secretaries who scurry in and out, all blonde, generally gorgeous copies of his wife, Keenie, except for his main assistant, Donna, a dead ringer for Demi Moore. A fairly slow day at the Fiegerdome.
The leather-bound book, The Scopes Trial, is about Clarence Darrow and the greatest trial of the century, the one about teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925. "They'll have to write in the word 'second' before 'greatest,'" proclaims Fieger. The Detroit newspapers always give his first name as "flamboyant." He hates that word, but he behaves as if it is his copyright.
Once, when a major hospital was slow in paying a settlement, Fieger got a court order and started loading his furniture and equipment into vans. That was pretty cool, an unemployed pathologist named Kevorkian thought, back when he was scanning headlines while eating Velveeta-cheese sandwiches in a tacky apartment. He remembered the name years later when Richard Thompson, the Oakland County prosecutor, was trying to put him away for murder and a judge told the doctor he had better get a lawyer fast.
Kevorkian, whose legal knowledge is equivalent to that of your average space alien, dialed Fieger's office on a Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, Fieger was there-- in tuxedo top, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, cooling off after baking in the summer sun watching a polo match. A half-hour later, the pathologist arrived with his sister. "Margo liked him right off, better than I did," remembers Kevorkian. "She said he was a fighter."
Fieger was a tremendously successful fighter. He had won the nation's first million-dollar settlement for the misuse of psychotropic drugs, a suit he had begun while still at the Detroit College of Law. Before that, he had what he calls "a prolonged adolescence," in which he bummed around Europe as a roadie for a rock band before finally earning two degrees in drama from the University of Michigan and drifting into law school. "I had no intention of being a lawyer," he says now, "but I found out it was like trying a food you never knew you liked and - bam!"
Fieger was just out of law school and suffering under his late father's thumb (the two men screamed at each other, his sister, Beth, says, all day, every day) when his younger brother, Doug, hit the big time. Doug, the leader of a band called the Knack, scored a No. 1 hit in 1979, "My Sharona." Everyone who knew Fieger then says he was just jealous as hell. "He likes attention," says Keenie Fieger, a willowy, down-to-earth former advertising executive, in a classic understatement.
The Knack soon expired, but though Fieger had started making serious money, he was still unknown, even in Michigan, outside a fairly select legal community. He knew immediately that Dr. Death was his ticket to prime time.
Not that he didn't believe in the cause. Fieger's father, Bernie, died horribly from diabetes in 1988. The elder Fiegers had been leftish: Bernie was a civil-rights lawyer who risked his neck in Mississippi; June, Geoffrey's mother, was a union organizer. "I knew instantly that this was the right issue," says Fieger. "But before I met Jack Kevorkian, I always kind of assumed that help would be there for me, if I needed it. I found out I was dead wrong, that there are those who believe the state should make you suffer."
Without a doubt, Geoffrey Fieger has become the man Detroit's media most love to hate. He manipulates them shamelessly, calling press conferences on the spur of the moment, on deadline, sending editors cursing. He singles out for the public humiliation reporters he thinks have been unfair; he may rap on a forehead while screaming, "Hello! Hello!" But always, always, they come back to the Fiegerdome.
Most of all, he wants to win. Over and over again, he bellows. "Let us get it on! We want a trial! No jury will ever convict Dr. Kevorkian."
Yet, as a lawyer, Fieger knows you can never be too sure. Polls show vast differences between blacks and whites on the issue. More than half of the whites but only 22 percent of the blacks surveyed support assisted suicide. Some opponents cite religious reasons; others, suspicions. "I don't even trust doctors to keep me alive," a retired former lobbyist told the state death-and-dying commission, a body established to make recommendations concerning an assisted-suicide law. And Detroit Recorder's Court would pick a jury from a population that is three quarters black.
But Fieger has an ace up his sleeve. Sometime after that stressful morning of August 4, Dr. Kevorkian's now reinstated counsel learns that Thomas Hyde did not die on Belle Isle.
It makes a lot of sense for Jack Kevorkian to want everyone to think Tom Hyde went to heaven from Belle Isle in Wayne County, and not from Oakland County, the suburban treeland where both he and Hyde lived. Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson is a long-time foe of Kevorkian and assisted suicide. Thanks to him, Kevorkian claims to know what it feels like to be "strong-armed" by sheriff's deputies. "It was to protect my physical person that I decided to do that" - to stage the suicide in the suburb of Royal Oak, where he lived, and drive the body some 20 miles to Belle Isle, Kevorkian told the courtroom.
So why not just turn on the gas on Belle Isle?
"I was worried," Kevorkian said over lunch. "What if someone stopped me? So Neal went and got him [Hyde] and drove him to where I live, where we transferred him in an alley to my van. Then I drove back behind my apartment, where no one would think it was unusual for my van to be, and that's where we helped him. Neal parked in the parking lot a few hundred yards away. When it was all over, I got out of the van as a signal to Neal, and he followed me down to Belle Isle."
Nicol followed because, as Kevorkian told the jury, his van was a real "clunker," and having it break down on the road with a corpse inside might not have been a good idea. Once the van crossed the bridge to the island, Nicol was out of there; Fieger had warned Kevorkian that anyone who attended a suicide might be charged as an accomplice.
But first they had made one stop that the jury never heard about. Kevorkian had brought a spare canister of carbon monoxide, in case the first one malfunctioned. He was still in Royal Oak when he realized that he had it with him, and that they would surely lose it when the police confiscated his van. Carbon monoxide is expensive, so he motioned Nicol into a school parking lot, jumped out, transferred the canister, and drove on.
All this might have surprised Timothy Kenny, the Wayne County assistant prosecutor handling the case, a man with a pleasant Irish face (the prosecutor's office is the last stronghold of Detroit's old Irish mafia).
Except that someone tipped him off: Geoffrey Fieger.
For on a January day, with the temperature near a record 20 below, Fieger confided in Michael Kirk, a Boston filmmaker who was doing what turned out to be a very sympathetic documentary on Kevorkian for Frontline, the PBS-TV series. "What if Hyde never died in Detroit?" the lawyer asked, stunning Kirk.
Unknown to Fieger, Frontline was also employing a Detroit newspaper reporter, Michael Betzold, to secretly try to turn up information on Kevorkian. Betzold's own cousin had found her release from terminal cancer in an appointment with the doctor, and Betzold had written a book critical of Kevorkian.
Kirk, Fieger surmises, passed the attorney's tantalizing question on to Betzold. The reporter's probing soon tipped off Kenny, a graying 45-year -old who has spent nearly 20 years winning convictions from beneath the fluorescent lightbulbs of the depressingly gray Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. Kenny realized the implications; Detroit Recorder's Court is charged with prosecuting felonies only in Wayne County. The argument could be made that it has no jurisdiction over an Oakland County death.
But would Fieger really pull something like that?
On the day he was ordered to stand trial for Thomas Hyde's death, Jack Kevorkian assisted another suicide in Wayne County. Then, on October 22, in an apparent show of contempt for Richard Thompson, he assisted a woman on his own couch.
A month later, Dr. Ali Khalili, a pain-control specialist who was racked with bone cancer, had himself driven from Chicago to Royal Oak to show support for his colleague in the most dramatic way possible. "He could have done it himself," Kevorkian says, still deeply moved when he thinks of Khalili. "He had access to all kinds of drugs."
An exasperated local judge, whose first wife committed suicide and whose courtroom overlooks Kevorkian's apartment, sent the defiant doctor to jail, where he starved himself in protest for 18 days. Finally, Fieger got a higher judge to lower the bond from $50,000 to $100 after Kevorkian promised he'd stop helping suicides "until the matter is resolved by higher courts of this state or a vote of the public at large."
A month later, Oakland County Circuit Court judge Jessica Cooper became the third judge to declare the law unconstitutional, dismissing the two most recent cases, which were in her jurisdiction. Hyde's suicide was the only charge left.
As a precaution against a claim that the suicide had occurred outside Wayne County, Kenny turned up one Anita Banks, a Detroit police officer who was on duty in the early morning of August 4, 1993. She testifies that she saw the van parked on Belle Isle shortly after eight A.M.-- more than an hour before James Arthurs watched Kevorkian screaming at and firing Fieger in the middle of the road.
When Banks looked into the front of the van, there was no one there. Was Kevorkian really in back, watching Tom Hyde die?
Fieger might have attacked the witness's credibility, especially after she admitted forgetting to turn on her computer so she could run a license-plate check. How could she accurately remember what time she saw the van nearly nine months later? But Fieger bothers with only a cursory cross-examination. "So what?" he says that evening. "Doesn't matter."
Does he regret not having gone after her when, a week later --on the second day of deliberations-- the jury asks to again hear an audiotape of Banks's testimony?
"Give me a break," replies Fieger contemptuously. But his fingers clench as the tape is played to the courtroom. The juror's faces are impassive. He has gambled all, and unlike Jack Kevorkian, Geoffrey Fieger cannot stand to play cards, especially poker.
At the beginning of the trial, some of the reporters covering it started a pool to guess how long before Judge Thomas Jackson, a trim, methodical 51-year-old veteran of a dozen years on the bench, would toss Fieger in jail for contempt of court. Certainly, the two men seemed to have scant respect for each other during the weeks and months before the trial. Once, when the lawyer showed up at a bail hearing in November without his client, the judge's fury was such that Fieger subsequently told Kevorkian, "I think I'm going in [jail] with you."
Neither Jackson nor the prosecutors thought the trial made sense until the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on the constitutionality of the state's assisted-suicide law. For months, no one, not even Fieger, thought there would be a trial. Way back on January 6, the appeals court heard oral arguments on the flawed law's constitutionality. "We will try to get you a decision as soon as possible," the presiding judge of the three-judge panel promised. That meant a month, according to one constitutional-law professor. Three months passed without a word.
So Fieger demands his client's right to a speedy trial-- and the battle is joined. With the aid of his jury consultants, Fieger devises a 12-page questionnaire designed to elicit a personality profile of each potential juror. The defense team then persuades the prosecution, and the judge, to have each juror candidate fill it out as a way of shortening the voir dire. To the amazement of Lou Genevie, head of the New York-based Litigation Strategies, Ltd., the prosecutor challenges very little of it.
The completed surveys are, it is true, made available to the prosecution as well as the defense. But Kenny does not have four psychological experts sitting at his table telling him how to read them. "The key is not only opinion but force of personality," Genevie explains. Stiff-necked allies and weak-willed opponents are the idea.
The consultants assign each juror a code from one to five: a one is most likely to vote to acquit; a five, most likely to convict. When the selection ends, there are six ones among the jurors and alternates and only one five, a young woman who sleeps through two-thirds of the trial. She'll be a pushover if some of ours are strong-willed, the consultants say. They are cautiously optimistic.
Despite the correspondents' pool, Fieger is not tossed in the clink. Indeed, as the five days of the trial pass, there seems to be a subtle shift in the judge's attitude. "Kenny expected the judge to win his case for him, and I think Jackson didn't like that," says Genevie, applying his courtroom psychology.
Jackson rules against Fieger on countless little things but finds for the defense on nearly every point that matters, including what ought to be the clincher: when the jury is charged, the judge tells them that in order to convict they have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the suicide took place in Wayne County.
"Wouldn't it be great if they came back in five minutes?" Fieger asks.
Sixteen potential jurors sit in the jury box. After the closing arguments, four are eliminated at random. When the numbers are pulled, Lou Genevie's mouth turns down. All those eliminated are jurors they had pegged as pro-Kevorkian. "We have a fight on our hands," Genevie says grimly.
Fieger does braggadocio for the cameras, then retreats to his suburban tent, suddenly depressed. "Do you think it's gonna be, like, O.K.?" he asks. Outside, a spring breeze riffs the little trees on his front lawn; unbeknownst to him, some of them were put in by landscaper Thomas Hyde.
Huddled in Fieger's TV room, Genevie goes over the numbers. It's close. "But I don't think [the jurors apt to convict] have any strong personalities on their side. That's as or more important than how they feel. Ours should wear them down."
Morning. The hours pass. No verdict. Fieger hangs out in the courtroom and the third-floor pressroom all day. Kevorkian comes in, too, and sits in the nearly deserted courtroom, joking at first but growing increasingly brittle.
At three, when the judge lets the jurors go home for the weekend, Kevorkian whirls on Lynn Mills, a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who has been known to go through Neal Nicol's garbage looking for damaging information. For her, the issue is simple: Kevorkian is a killer, doing Satan's work.
"I see your Pope broke his leg and asked for painkillers, Lynn," he sneers. "Painkillers!" Kevorkian likes to remind people that the Catholic Church once frowned on anesthesia. Mills shudders; Fieger drags his man away.
In the jury room, they are split six to six. The three white jurors, all women, firmly back Kevorkian. So does Anthony Scaife, a sharp-dressing computer technician. But others suspect the jurisdictional question is merely a lawyer's trick, and some, including Gail Donaldson, a 42-year-old visiting nurse whose face radiates warmth, think it is a sin to take any life, for whatever reason. The jury consultants ranked her a four on their scale, a devout Baptist. Not a good sign.
Sunday. Away from the prying eyes of the media, Jack Kevorkian goes to church with 40-some relatives and friends of his departed patients. He's calmer now.
The Reverend Thomas Eggebeen, pastor of St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in suburban Livonia, is the only major minister in the Detroit area to take a stand favoring physician-assisted suicide. For reasons having nothing to do with the trial, he has scheduled a special memorial service for the families of the 20 for whom Jack Kevorkian provided "a way out," as his first patient, Janet Adkins, put it.
When the pastor calls each name, relatives stand to say a few words. Kevorkian speaks for those who are not represented. "She had courage," he says quietly of one woman. "That is a word that could apply to them all."
Doreen Ackner rises for her sister, Elaine Goldbaum. "We are greatly indebted to Dr. Jack because he was the one who gave her back her dignity."
Stanley Ball's son stands. "I once asked him what he thought of Dr. K., and he said, 'No one else is helping us.'"
Afterward, there is a Norman Rockwellesque church supper (baked chicken, overdone beef), and while others eat, Dr. Death swings two-year-old Carmen, Thomas Hyde's daughter, through the air as the child shouts "Jackie" and coos with delight.
Monday morning. Behind closed doors, Gail Donaldson leads the jurors in prayer. They shut their eyes, clasp their hands.
Then it comes to her.
"I believe Dr. Kevorkian is guilty of all these charges, except one," she says, tears streaming down her cheeks. "He did this to relieve this man's pain and suffering, even though it was wrong to help someone to commit suicide. I don't feel it's our obligation to choose for someone else....That's between them and their God."
The last holdout, a mechanic at a used-car lot, caves in at noon, after someone points out, once again, that no one can really tell where the suicide happened.
The jury files back into the packed courtroom, and at 12:57 the foreman rises to read the verdict. Jack Kevorkian, in a red plaid shirt, tenses almost imperceptibly. "Bad, bad, bad," he tells Geoffrey Fieger. But juror Susan Adams looked Fieger in the eye and smiled a tiny smile as she walked in. He knows his blondes, and he knows what's coming now.
Neal Nicol grabs Margo Janus's hands so that she won't clap.
"Why were people worried?" Kevorkian asks, grinning. "Everyone was worried except me."
That night, as Fieger makes the rounds of the networks, Kevorkian stretches out on the mattress that lies on his bedroom floor. He knows the reporters are trying to figure out when he will strike again. Well, they'll be surprised. "I'm not doing it alone anymore," he says. "We've got a panel of doctors now who will be willing to come forward and help me, seven of them at least. There's a black family practitioner I've known in Pontiac for years, a prominent internist, four psychiatrists. We'll do it right now, set the guidelines, prevent abuse. We'll use drugs and gas as a backup measure, so the patient will feel no discomfort."
The words spill out happily; gone from his rhetoric is any need to denounce the enemy. "You know, this is pretty historic, I think," says the usually pessimistic Kevorkian. "Mankind took a step back from the Dark ages today. We've got a long way to go to get to Athens in the time of Pericles, but this was good."
The next day is good, too. Kevorkian plays a satisfyingly abysmal round of golf (122), then is interviewed by his all-time favorite, Barbara Walters, for a third time. Later that night, as he is sitting down to a cake that reads "Free at last!" at a victory dinner hosted by Dr. Stanley Levy, who testified for him at the trial, a federal judge in Seattle named Barbara Rothstein overturns Washington State's law outlawing assisted suicide. She writes, "Like the abortion decision, the decision of a terminally ill person to end his or her life involves the most intimate and personal choice a person can make in a lifetime, and constitutes a choice central to personal dignity and autonomy."
Kevorkian could have written those words himself. "Personal choice is really what it is all about," he says. "Quality of life, as opposed to maintaining existence." He pauses before adding, "You know, this isn't completely unselfish on my part, because I want that choice for me."
The landscape shifts again the next week when the Michigan Court of Appeals hands down its long-awaited decision. As expected, the state assisted-suicide law is found to be unconstitutional on technical grounds. But, in an unforeseen twist, the court reinstates old first-degree-murder charges against Kevorkian in the 1991 deaths of Sherry Miller and Marjorie Wantz, citing a 1920 case in which a farmer was convicted for setting a glass of poisoned water within reach of his terminally ill wife.
When the word comes down, Kevorkian is collecting signatures for his petition drive in front of the West Bloomfield post office. Clipboard in hand, he seems amused, professional. "Well," he chuckles, "it surprises me anytime we see any kind of rationality from the judiciary."
Back at the Fiegerdome, his attorney is first startled, then roars with glee. If a jury won't convict Kevorkian of something everyone knows he does, how do they expect to convict him of murder? Prosecutor Thompson, sensing this is so, says he would be glad to wait until the appeals have all run their course. No way! Fieger laughs indignantly. "This is amazingly goofy and the best thing that could happen," he exclaims. "We demand a speedy trial, right now! Tomorrow!" (Realistically, the earliest a new trial could start is around Labor Day).
"This is bound to go to the Supreme Court in the end," Fieger says. "It may take years but we're going to win. And someday, if the Nobel Prize committee is smart, they will give it to Kevorkian. Provided I don't kill him first."
FRONTLINE / WGBH Educational Foundation