A Defeat For Dr. Death

As victory parties go, it was pretty subdued. Jack Kevorkian sat down to a supper of veggie burgers and couscous in a friend's suburban Detroit home last Friday night, hours after receiving the verdict he said he welcomed: a second-degree murder conviction for euthanizing a terminally ill man named Thomas Youk. His mood, friends say, bounced between disappointment and euphoria as guests talked of unjust juries and appeal possibilities. Kevorkian took phone calls from supporters and ranted to those present (including his sister, a few longtime supporters and Youk's family) about living in a "corrupt, malevolent" society. The fear on everyone's mind: that no matter how short his sentence, the sickly 70-year-old may get to die for his cause while in prison. Kevorkian's sister, Flora Holzheimer, told NEWSWEEK: "If they put him in jail they will be illegally killing a hero."

If prison doesn't kill him, it will certainly put a crimp in his practice. Since his first assisted suicide in an old Volkswagen van in 1990, Kevorkian had turned Michigan into a mecca for the terminally ill: by his own count, he sent more than 130 sick patients to their graves. Six times prosecutors had failed to make charges against him stick. But his Sept. 17 injection of Youk proved different: armed with a videotape of the death (aired in November on CBS's "60 Minutes"), prosecutors dropped the traditional assisted-suicide charge, opting for straight murder. Court TV dutifully trooped to town to cover the proceedings live, but last week's trial was an anticlimactic last hurrah. After a falling-out with his longtime attorney, Geoffrey Feiger, Kevorkian represented himself--badly, in most experts' judgment. When the judge ruled that he couldn't call Youk's wife and brother to describe his pain, Kevorkian summoned no witnesses. In his closing argument he compared himself to lawbreaking pioneers Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.; prosecutors called him a "medical hit man." After 12 hours of deliberations the foreman pronounced him guilty of second-degree murder. Sentencing will take place April 14.

There the victim's family may tell of his pain and the relief Kevorkian provided, as they'd hoped to do at trial. Identical tales won Kevorkian past acquittals, but this time he faces hard time: one year to life, at the judge's discretion. "This is not a typical murder," Kevorkian's lead attorney, David Gorosh, told NEWSWEEK, so he'll argue for leniency. Prosecutor John Skrzynski expects what the law prescribes: 10 to 25 years. Lawyers are also preparing two sets of appeals: one on technical issues from this trial, and another on broader constitutional grounds. Friends are more worried about whether Kevorkian will deliver on threats to go on a hunger strike in prison, though two friends say lately he's backed away from the starvation pledge. "I don't know that we can predict how he's going to behave," says Dr. Stanley Levy, a friend and internist who treated Kevorkian during a previous 19-day hunger strike. Eating or not, Kevorkian has said he doesn't expect to live long, and with a lengthy sentence Jack Kevorkian may never be free again.