Bring back Fieger!

The Michigan Court of Appeals has finally agreed to hear Jack Kevorkian’s appeal of his 1999 murder conviction.

The real question: Will anyone notice?

They should. These days, Kevorkian basically has been forgotten, something that would have astonished everyone five years ago, when he was in the news every day, and was as well-known as the president.

Virtually everyone in the media thinks that regardless of the merits of physician-assisted suicide, Kevo had gone off the deep end, and was reckless, probably self-destructive and had become a bit boring, which, to the press, is the most damning thing.

Well, there is some truth in all that. But this misses the point entirely. For years, I reported on assisted suicide, especially Kevorkian. I was attacked for supposedly being a shill for Dr. Death, and then denounced by his remaining supporters for later saying that having worked so hard to get there, maybe he belonged in jail. The tragedy was that by his last series of reckless acts, he threw away virtually everything he had accomplished.

For me, this never really should have been about Kevorkian at all, but about the issue. And it never should have been framed as one of suicide, but of personal freedom. The way things stand now is, frankly, nuts.

Legally, if a woman has a life growing in her body, she can have it killed, via abortion, no questions asked. However, it would be a felony if I, a highly educated, middle-aged adult, were to ask the same doctor to help me exercise control over my own body by ending my life.

No matter if I were suffering and in hopeless shape, as are thousands who — briefly — won some notice when Kevorkian became their champion. They were the forgotten people of medicine, kept alive by the arts of science, but miserable. I met some who later died with Kevorkian. They seemed rational and knew exactly what they wanted, which was out.

For some, pain wasn’t even the issue; it was a life just not worth living anymore. Their eloquence, captured from beyond the grave on videotape — combined with Geoffrey Fieger’s shrewd lawyering skills — was why Kevorkian won acquittal after acquittal.

During the last two years Kevo was free, he had won the de facto legal right to help them die. Other doctors were beginning to be less timid about doing the same. We were looking at a sea change in medicine.

Then Kevorkian threw that all away — and to make sure he’d fail, fired the lawyer who had saved his scrawny butt from the beginning.

Once he was in their clutches, the gods of the legal system Kevo defied so long exacted revenge. Convicted of second-degree murder (manslaughter would have made more sense) in March 1999, he was swiftly sentenced to a term far longer than the guidelines called for.

Once he was in the slam, the state suddenly ruled that prisoners could no longer be interviewed on camera. The press barely protested.

Having learned at last that as his own lawyer he was a disaster, Kevorkian accepted the services of one of the state’s most able attorneys, Mayer “Mike” Morgenroth, who is courageous, but on far better terms with the legal establishment than Fieger could ever be.

For more than two years, Morgenroth has done his best, only to find that the usual rules don’t apply here. He thought he had a deal worked out to send Kevo to a federal prison camp. Didn’t happen. He argued before a relatively liberal federal judge for bail. Not a chance.

Now, he is going to appeal Kevorkian’s conviction before a panel of three of the most conservative appellate judges. And despite Kevo’s self-sabotage, there are grounds for thinking there ought to be a reversal.

According to Morgenroth, the prosecutor violated Kevorkian’s Fifth Amendment rights repeatedly during closing arguments. He did that by alluding to the pathologist’s decision not to testify. In case after case, the courts clearly have said you can’t do that.

But don’t hold your breath. Morgenroth is a superb lawyer with a brilliant record. That’s not the problem. What is needed, if Kevorkian has any chance of being freed before he dies, is an appeal to the court of public opinion, which is where Fieger comes in.

No one was ever better at that than he — and Kevorkian now realizes that. Earlier this month, Fieger paid him a secret visit in his solitary cell in Jackson, and Kevorkian reportedly asked him to rejoin the team.

Which is what ought to happen. No doubt Morgenroth should make the official, for-the-record arguments before the appeals panel Sept. 11. But Fieger should be making the case where it counts.

That’s not just for Kevorkian’s sake — though he hasn’t gotten a fair shake since his conviction. And we ought not to forget that, misguided as he was at the end, he had guts, and he took on a vastly corrupt establishment. But we need to pay attention again to what actually is the final civil rights movement. What this is really about is every one of us who will get Lou Gehrig’s disease and otherwise be forced to strangle on our own spit.

And it is about Rosemary Frost, 71, horribly burned July 19, who had a living will clearly stating she be allowed to die. The doctors forced two rounds of futile, painful skin graft surgery anyway — despite her adult children’s protests.

She finally died in agony Aug. 22, while Tampa General Hospital was in court, fighting to make her family accept further “treatments.”

Something very like that may happen to us, unless we win the right to control our own destiny. It’s time we faced up to that, and to this: However much of a crackpot Kevorkian is, his enemies are worse. And if they win, he won’t be in for long-term suffering. We will.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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