The great divorce

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This week, they set the date for the long-awaited Kevorkian murder trial, probably this spring. The other night, I was at an elegant dinner party where a lot of the guests were very good lawyers. (Okay; I was serving the canapés, but I was still there.) Not surprisingly, talk turned to the next scheduled performance of the Merchant of Death.

Virtually none of the smart guys, I found, really believes Geoffrey Fieger is off the case, not permanently. Everyone more than suspects at the last moment the Fieg will stride into the courtroom, both sides of his mouth blazing, light saber flashing, Darth Vader cape billowing, to the beaming of female jurors and the quaking of prosecutors.

Guess what. It isn't going to happen.

Fieger and Kevorkian, for years as closely linked as Coca and Cola, are not even speaking to each other. The split is beyond serious; as far as their close friends can tell, it is irreversible. Last weekend, a physician friendly to both put together a party where Kevorkian was repeatedly advised, beseeched, even begged to seek a reconciliation.

No way, he said, over and over, politely, firmly, sometimes heatedly. He was as adamant as I have ever seen him. Mostly, he tried to keep it on an intellectual basis. "The old tactics won't work anymore," he said. "I have a strategy that I think will work, if I get a judge and jury that isn't corrupt." The key: his contention that "this isn't a crime, and can never be a crime, no matter what words are written on paper."

That really isn't that far removed from Fieger's argument, used so effectively in other trials, that "there could never be a law that says we have to suffer."

But the roots of the breakup are not mainly in intellectual issues or courtroom strategy.

Mostly this is deeply personal; relations were in fact severed by Kevorkian, who feels insulted and terribly offended by what he considers Fieger's overbearing personality, patronizing attitude, and recent remarks in which the lawyer said the doctor would be destroyed and have a fool for a client if he represented himself.

For his part, Fieger also feels misused. He has heard that the retired pathologist is saying that "any lawyer could have done as well as Geoffrey," which even his bitterest enemies would call nonsense. He feels he has been the man who made the world safe for Jack Kevorkian, who has defended him against all comers pro bono, and who consequently deserves a little respect and gratitude.

These are both difficult men, the world knows, with considerable egos. Kevorkian may have been put off by his lawyer's careful distancing during the gubernatorial campaign and his claim, scarcely credible, that he "opposes assisted suicide."

This fall, while his defender was preoccupied with his hopeless campaign for governor, the pathologist was plotting, planning, and making ready to execute his next move. Geoffrey Fieger apparently never knew about it until after the euthanasia tape was delivered to "60 Minutes." Sometime soon thereafter, Kevorkian told him he planned to defend himself, and the two men got into an argument on the phone.

"He yelled at me, he was abusive, and I told him that was it. That was the last time," Kevorkian said. Fieger contends it was the other way around; more than likely, both men engaged in yelling; they did a lot of yelling at each other during the best of times.

Now they are in full-blown divorce mode; squabbling even over the house which Fieger has rented to Kevorkian. The doctor claims the lawyer has been saying he lets him have it for "$1 a year." The truth is A) Kevo (who has now given notice) has been paying $350 a month rent, but B) Fieg could easily get four times as much.

Actually, this has been a long time coming, and its roots stem back to before the two men ever met. Jack Kevorkian always has wanted a trial more like the trial of Socrates in ancient Greece, where the testimony was mainly high philosophical debate. He tried to go that route after his first assisted suicide, attempting to introduce a long essay with quotes from Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and other worthies.

An Oakland County circuit judge told him he didn't know what he was doing.

"I am in the machinations of nicety of abstractions," he said. "You better get a lawyer," the judge said, and so he called Fieger.

Nearly nine years later, he is determined to have his sort of trial at last.

The potential for disaster and defeat seems great. What seems clear is that he probably knows this, and doesn't care. Socrates, after all, lost his trial, and drank poison, a shortened version of starving oneself to death in jail.

Today, his admiring pathologist might say, "Ah, but does history remember the names of those who condemned Socrates?"

The jury is still out on how Jack Kevorkian will be remembered.

Deserving Amnesty: Now here's a clear-cut moral issue: the Detroit Chapter of Amnesty International, the group that works to free political prisoners everywhere, is having a party Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church House, at Cass and Prentis. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and not only is it sure to be a class act, there's free cake.

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