Let the prisoner be seen

Aug 30, 2000 at 12:00 am
OK, now, for a free copy of the Metro Times: What two things do George W. Bush and Jack Kevorkian have in common? Your final answers ought to have been: a) Both believe in helping people die; and b) They have both helped add to the swelling prison population, Kevorkian, admittedly, by adding only his own frail self.

Last week Dr. Death emerged from the media dustbin briefly when his lawyer, Mike Morgenroth, asked for his release on bond pending his appeal. Why now is baffling. Oakland County Circuit Judge Jessica Cooper, who slapped an unexpectedly harsh sentence on Dr. Death last year, already has denied his bail request. Twice.

And now she is in a tough race for the state court of appeals. Why think she’d change her mind at this time? Naturally, she denied the request almost immediately, which greatly pleased those who like having the K in the slam.

So what, corrections spokesman Matt Davis asked, if Kevorkian’s blood pressure is out of control? “People die in prison just like they do in real life. A prison sentence is a prison sentence is a prison sentence. If they die in prison, that’s tough,” he said.

Compassionate conservatism, corrections style.

“Now we go to the court of appeals,” said Morgenroth. His chances there are, however, abysmally worse. This is the same appellate court that interfered — on behalf of the prosecution — with earlier Kevorkian trials and which has refused to even schedule a hearing date for the imprisoned pathologist’s original appeal.

Yes, they’ll let him out on bail, all right. Sometime after rigor mortis has set in.

The fact is that the creatures who run the Michigan Department of Corrections are treating Kevorkian like a political prisoner, and getting away with it.

They won’t admit that any more than Kevorkian and his few remaining supporters will admit he brought this all on himself by his reckless and self-destructive behavior. Interestingly, though I am often called an apologist for Dr. Death, the other day one of his supporters told me that he had ordered her never to speak to me again. I suppose he was upset by my tart observation some months ago that, since he had worked so hard to get himself jailed, perhaps he belonged there.

Frankly, Kevorkian has no one but himself to blame.

For years he was a very real hero to those who knew that some people needed help dying; a callous medical profession often was unwilling even to prescribe adequate pain medication. I have met doctors like that, and hope they burn in hell.

By 1996, after his courtroom victories, physician-assisted suicide Kevorkian-style had become de facto legal. Had he carried on, almost certainly other doctors would also have begun to do it openly. Eventually, they might have set up review panels (which Kevorkian said he wanted) to guard against abuse.

But that amazing success didn’t satisfy him. Instead, he insisted that a poor wretch who wanted assisted suicide submit to videotaped euthanasia; had Tom Youk begged for help in dying and then been physically incapable of the final act, it might have been another story. To make sure he’d go down, Kevorkian fired Geoffrey Fieger, the man who had kept him free and famous, pro bono, for eight years.

If the suffering patients were, as he always said, his own highest priority Jack Kevorkian blew it. Frankly, if I were Jessica Cooper, I don’t think I’d let him out.

But that doesn’t merit his sadistic and outrageous treatment by the prison system. Whatever else he is, Kevorkian is an elderly (72) man in jail for a first offense. He lethally injected a dying man who begged for help in dying. He ought to be in a prison camp someplace, not in a 6-foot-by-10-foot cell in what used to be Jacktown.

Originally, his captors told his attorneys that he would be sent to a federal prison camp. They lied; he was sent to solitary in a maximum-security prison near Muskegon instead. After some months, he was sent to a medium-security pen in the Upper Peninsula. He bore all this with good grace and was a model prisoner.

When the time came when he could put in for a transfer, he asked to be sent to a similar prison in Lapeer, close to his doctor and lawyer. He went instead to a part of the infamous old State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson.

Even worse, the state authorities mysteriously changed the rules about media access to prisoners right about the time Kevorkian arrived in the slam.

Suddenly, prisoners can no longer be interviewed on television. Davis claims that has nothing to do with Kevorkian; it is just that the prison system now finds such things disruptive and a security risk. Right. So Barbara Walters and “20/20” were told sorry, no. They got a county judge to order the Department of Corrections to allow the interview, but the state appeals court swiftly blocked that ruling.

That, by the way, is probably that for Baba. Matt Davis told me, happily, that he thinks his folks can tie up or delay a final ruling for years. That ought to make you furious. Whatever you think of Jack Kevorkian, he still has the right to free speech.

Even more, we should have the right to hear him. He has been near the center of an enormous debate about how we die for years. To deny him the right to speak via the dominant medium of our age — TV — is to deny us the right to hear him. To silence him is to risk making this cranky and bizarre little man a martyr at last.

Wouldn’t that be some legacy for John Engler to leave?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]