DETROIT (Reuters) - Jack Kevorkian, the U.S. assisted suicide advocate dubbed “Dr. Death,” stepped free from a Michigan prison on Friday with few words but plans for a media blitz to support his cause.
Kevorkian, 79, who says he assisted in some 130 deaths, had served eight years for a second-degree murder conviction after he videotaped himself administering lethal drugs to a 52-year-old man suffering from the debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The former pathologist, won international notoriety in the 1990s after presiding as a doctor in suicides and advocating the legalization of assisted suicide in the United States.
Under police escort, Kevorkian and his lawyer drove out of a state prison in rural Coldwater, Michigan, about 100 miles
southwest of Detroit.
Kevorkian, who wore his signature blue cardigan sweater, pressed his hand to his heart and said “Good, good,” when asked by a throng of waiting reporters how he felt.
Starting with a series of high-profile television interviews, Kevorkian has said he will return to the campaign for legal reform to allow the terminally ill to end their lives with medical aid.
CBS reporter Mike Wallace, whose “60 Minutes” news show aired the death tape that became the central piece of evidence at Kevorkian’s 1999 murder trial, was greeted by the newly released Kevorkian with a hug.
In an interview conducted on his way home to the Detroit area, Kevorkian told Wallace he would abide by the terms of his parole and limit his public speech about assisted suicide to an argument for its legalization.
He also said he promised his parole board he would turn away any terminally ill person seeking his advice on suicide.
“It would be painful for me but I would have to refuse them,” Kevorkian said, according to a partial transcript released by CBS.
Kevorkian’s release reignited a complicated debate involving medical ethics, religious views about the sanctity of life and the rights of suffering patients facing death.
About a dozen of his supporters lined a road to the prison under gray skies, holding hand-lettered signs, including, “Jack, Glad You’re Back” and “Jack, We’re Glad You’re Out of the Box.”
“This is something that I feel strongly about,” said Pam Hawley, 52, a Florida resident visiting Michigan who organized the show of support.
But the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, where Kevorkian presided over suicides in hotel rooms and the back of his rusty van, issued a statement condemning him.
“For 10 years, Jack Kevorkian’s actions resembled those of a serial killer,” spokesman Ned McGrath said. “It will be truly regrettable if he’s now treated as a celebrity parolee instead of the convicted murderer he is.”
Kevorkian had thwarted four attempts by prosecutors to convict him and flouted a Michigan ban on assisted suicide aimed at him. State regulators revoked his medical license in 1991.
Mayer Morganroth, Kevorkian’s lawyer, said his client had many offers for speaking engagements waiting for him, including some paying between $50,000 and $100,000.
But other U.S. advocates for assisted suicide have sought to distance their cause from Kevorkian after a decade of stalemate as they tried to push state-by-state legal changes.
In 1997, Oregon became the only U.S. state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Records show 292 such suicides under that law from 1998 through 2006.
Efforts to pass similar measures in other states including Michigan and Hawaii failed.
A bill modeled on the Oregon law is set to go to the California legislature next week in a move seen by all sides as the most important test of the issue in years.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Cook in Coldwater, Michigan