Covering Kevorkian, From The First Suicides On

Originally published on June 4, 2011 11:40 am
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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the pathologist who assisted in suicides, died yesterday. NPR's Don Gonyea opens his reporter's notebook.

DON GONYEA: I first became aware of Jack Kevorkian many, many months before he helped his first person die. He lived in Royal Oak, Michigan. I lived in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was kind of the neighborhood eccentric. You'd see him at the grocery store. Except, we knew he had this invention, something he called a suicide machine. And it was kind of this erector set contraption with a metal rack and a broomstick top and bags of liquid and tubes all over the place. And over on one side, a push button hooked up to a little electric motor and a battery and that's the button you would push to start the fluids flowing.

We never thought he'd use it. Then one day he did. This is a videotape that he made where hes giving instructions to the woman who would become the first person he helped die.

(Soundbite of videotape)

Dr. JACK KEVORKIAN: Now, Janet, do you know youve seen - you know what I -you're asking me to do? Do you realize that?

Ms. JANET ADKINS: Yes.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Okay. Do you want help from me?

Ms. ADKINS: I do.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Do you realize that I can make arrangements for everything and you have to do it?

Ms. ADKINS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: That you have to push the button.

Ms. ADKINS: I understand.

GONYEA: That's Dr. Kevorkian talking to 54-year-old Janet Adkins. She would become his first. She'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

GONYEA: Much of Jack Kevorkians public life took place in courtrooms, because he was on trial a lot; eventually ended up going to jail. He was always defiant. He often clashed with prosecutors as he does here.

(Soundbite of excerpt of cross-examination])

DR. KEVORKIAN: Laws like that have been passed throughout history in the Dark Ages.

Mr. TIMOTHY KENNY (Prosecuting attorney): And you just view, once again, that this is another of the Dark Ages laws, correct?

DR. KEVORKIAN: Oh, absolutely. It will be so seen in 10 years. I look at the law like it will be seen in 10 years.

GONYEA: So now that hes gone theres a story that sums him up best for me. It goes back to that very first time I met him, the morning after the first suicide. I told them that everybody I had talked to since Id heard I'd asked about it and that I was hearing a couple of things. A lot of people were appalled, a lot of people supported him. But I said even some of those people who support you think youre kind of a Dr. Frankenstein character. He looked at me and he leaned in very close - six inches away - in his dark apartment and said, have you read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? I nodded that I had. After a pause he said, then you know Frankenstein wasn't the monster; society was the monster. I got a little chill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: But that moment sums up his intellect, his defiance and his theatricality.

I'm Don Gonyea.

(Soundbite of music)

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