Jack Kevorkian, who's now 79 years old, was released from prison this past Friday after more than eight years behind bars. He had been convicted of murder for ending the life of a terminally ill man, Tom Youk, even though Youk and his family had begged Kevorkian to do it.
Back in 1998, Kevorkian gave 60 Minutes a tape he had made of Youk's final minutes, and we aired part of it on the broadcast.
Kevorkian wanted to force prosecutors to charge him because he believed that by winning in court he could make euthanasia legal — that is, death by doctor at the request of a terminally ill patient. But he didn't get the verdict he had expected.
Well now, as a free man, will Kevorkian continue his crusade? To find out, Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes team flew last Friday to the prison in Coldwater, Mich., for his release.
He says he's looking forward to quiet nights without snoring cellmates. And as Kevorkian and Wallace drove out of the prison, the doctor never looked back.
Kevorkian admits he has waited a long time for his release, yet he says he doesn't feel like a freeman. Asked to explain, Kevorkian says, "This is a virtual tether. Parole is a virtual tether.
And he will be tethered to his parole for two years, with restrictions designed to prevent him from promoting or participating in assisted suicide.
"I can't talk in detail about the procedure or advocate a procedure, especially with individuals," he explains.
He says he cannot offer counsel to anybody or advise people how to commit suicide. And he cannot be present at a suicide or euthanasia.
"Without violating your parole, Jack, what do you do to continue your crusade for assisted suicide and euthanasia?" Wallace asks.
"Well," Kevorkian says, "I'm going to work with activist groups trying to get it legalized. And putting my voice in with theirs to legalize it whenever I can. Either through legislatures or through courts if possible."
"What would you do if a desperate person comes to you, Jack Kevorkian, and says, 'I need help,' someone terminally ill who comes to you in terrible pain, wants you to lead them out of their misery? What do you tell them?" Wallace asks.
"Well, it would be painful for me but I'd have to refuse 'em. Because I gave my word that I won't do it again," Kevorkian says.
It was one of the conditions he agreed to to get out of prison. What got him into prison was the tape of Tom Youk.
Youk led an active life; he restored and raced vintage cars. But at the age 50 he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a devastating, incurable illness that destroyed his muscles. He lost the use of his legs and then his arms. His family says he was in terrible pain, had trouble breathing and swallowing, and was choking on his own saliva. So they wrote Dr. Kevorkian, who lived nearby, and he videotaped his first meeting with Tom.
"Trying to talk to Tom, you learned how bad he was. He couldn't also make intelligible words barely intelligible," Kevorkian told Wallace in 1998. "And you could see him breathing, gasping, leaning back every time he tried to talk. He couldn't utter more than a few syllables at a time because of the weak muscles. And he was terrified of choking. Terrified!"
In that interview nine years ago, Kevorkian told 60 Minutes he had helped more than 100 people die by having the patient pull the switch to start the lethal drugs flowing. And Tom Youk could have done that. But this time, Kevorkian suggested that he give Youk a lethal injection. He said that was more reliable and more humane and he wanted to push the public debate from doctor assisted suicide to euthanasia.
"This is better than assisted suicide. I explained that to him. It's better control. And then, he did agree," Kevorkian said.
Asked by Wallace how he knows Tom Youk agreed, Kevorkian said, "I had him sign, saying that he chose direct injection. And he signed it."
"Ok. Now I'm going to read it to you, Tom, and I want you to understand — I want to make sure you understand it and you got to listen closely. And stop me if you can't understand it," Kevorkian said to Youk in a videotaped conversation.
"Yes," Youk replied.
"This reads this way: 'I, Thomas Youk, the undersigned entirely voluntarily, without any reservation, external persuasion, pressure or duress, and after prolonged and thorough deliberation, hereby consent to the following medical procedure of my own choosing.' And that you have chosen direct injection, or what they call active euthanasia, 'to be administered by a competent medical professional in order to end with certainty my intolerable and hopelessly incurable suffering.' Did you understand all that?" Kevorkian asked.
"Yes," Youk responded.
Youk signed the statement and thought he was about to die, but Dr. Kevorkian wanted to postpone it to give him more time to think it over.
"You're sure you thought about this very well, now?" Kevorkian asked.
"Very much," Youk replied.
"You don't want to wait another month or so?" the doctor asked.
"No," Youk said.
"You want to wait a week? How about two weeks?" Kevorkian asked.
"No," Youk replied.
"One week? Can you wait one week?" Kevorkian asked.
"Yeah," Youk agreed.
"All right, we'll stretch it out one week, ok? Let's not hurry into this," Kevorkian said.
"But I got a call the next night from his brother saying, 'Tom wants it now!' And I couldn't say, 'Well no, I'm going to make you wait a week,'" Kevorkian recalled.
"What was happening there?" Wallace asked.
"He just was terrified, felt very afraid of choking to death and he must have felt that he was on the verge of it. And I couldn't have him suffer in that kind of frame of mind because if the man is terrified, it's up to me to dispel that terror," Kevorkian said.
So two nights after the first visit, Dr. Kevorkian returned. The family had been told to leave before he arrived to avoid possible criminal charges as accessories.
"Tom, do you want to go ahead with this?" Kevorkian asked Youk, with a video camera rolling.
"Yes," Youk says.
"Shake your head 'yes' if you want to go," Kevorkian asked.
Youk shook his head yes.
"All right. I'm going to have you sign again your name and we're going to date it today, ok?" Kevorkian said.
"Ok," Youk said.
"And we're ready to inject. We're going to inject in your right arm, ok? Okey-dokey," Kevorkian said.
First, the doctor gave him Seconal to put him to sleep quickly.
"Sleepy, Tom? Tom, are you asleep? Tom, are you asleep? You asleep? He's asleep," Kevorkian noted.
Then he injected a muscle relaxant to stop his breathing, and as Dr. Kevorkian explained, paralyze the muscles.
"But he's still alive at this point," Wallace remarked, watching the tape.
"He's still alive," Kevorkian acknowledged.
"Now I can see him breathing just a trifle," Wallace noted.
"Now that there's a lack of oxygen's getting to him now, but he's unconscious, deeply, so it doesn't matter," Kevorkian said.
"Is he dead now?" Wallace asked.
"He's dying now, because his oxygen's cut off. He can't breathe," Kevorkian explained. "So now, I'll quickly inject the potassium chloride to stop the heart."
After that, a cardiogram showed a straight line, indicating Youk's heart had stopped and he had died.
Youk's family — his wife Melody, brothers Terry and Bob, and his mother Betty — all said he was a fighter, but that he finally decided he needed Dr. Kevorkian.
"I was so grateful to know that someone would relieve him of his suffering. I don't consider it murder. I consider it humane; I consider it the way things should be," Melody Youk told Wallace in 1998.
"And I take it that you would not be sitting here unless you thought it was useful — socially useful — to have this broadcast," Wallace asked.
"Absolutely," Youk's brother Terry said. "We were at the end of our rope. We didn't have any options. And if it weren't for Dr. Kevorkian, I'm not sure what we would have done."
What the prosecutors did, after seeing the 60 Minutes broadcast, was to charge Dr. Kevorkian with murder. He had wanted a trial, but he didn't get the trial he had expected. The judge did not let Tom Youk's relatives testify or allow evidence about Youk's condition. The judge ruled that since the charge was murder, the key legal issue was whether Kevorkian had caused Tom Youk's death, and his own tape proved that he had.
The world's most famous mercy killer received no mercy from Judge Jessica Cooper. "You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you. Well Sir, consider yourself stopped," she said.
The judge sentenced Kevorkian to ten to 25 years. With time off for good behavior, he served eight and a half years. And now that he's free, he's as feisty as ever.
"I want you to live up to your reputation," Kevorkian tells Wallace.
"What's that, tough?" Wallace asked
"You've got to strafe me," Kevorkian says.
"Oh, all right," Wallace remarks. "You regret helping Tom Youk?
"No, why would I regret that?" Kevorkian asks. "That's like asking a veterinarian, 'Do you regret helping that person's animal?'"
"Well, wait a minute. Tom Youk was a man. And it was a compassionate murder, but you murdered him," Wallace says.
"But it was a man whose life didn't measure up anymore. You know, David Hume said it, 'No man ever threw away a life while it was worth keeping,'" Kevorkian responds.
"But you're the judge of whether it's worth keeping?" Wallace asks.
"No, the patient's the judge," Kevorkian says.
"After we showed you ending Tom Youk's life, we got an avalanche of letters from people with Lou Gehrig's disease and from their families who thought that by helping Tom, you were implying that all patients who had Lou Gehrig's disease should kill themselves," Wallace says.
"Well that's what they assumed," Kevorkian replied.
Asked if he thinks that all people with Lou Gehrig's disease should kill themselves, Kevorkian says, "Of course not! I think the ones who go on suffering without complaining and want to, I think that's laudable."
"Did making Tom Youk's death public, and the means by which, did that advance your cause or set it back?" Wallace asks.
"That's an iffy question," Kevorkian responds after a long pause. "And I don't know if it advanced it more than it set it back."
While he was in prison, three states voted on whether to legalize assisted suicide. All three states voted no; Oregon is still the only state that permits it.
"Oregon's assisted suicide law has been in effect ten years. Fewer than 300 people have committed suicide under that law," Wallace says. "Are you surprised the number's so low?"
"No," Kevorkian says. "Many people once they know they can do this, the panic dissipates from their mind. They now have control. Which they didn't before. And they tolerate the pain much better."
"Treatment for pain has vastly improved. Has that reduced the need for assisted suicide?" Wallace asks.
"That's one advantage of the campaign. It forced doctors to do that," Kevorkian says.
"Why does euthanasia have to be legal? It's an open secret that every day, all across the country, doctors end the suffering of the terminally ill," Wallace remarks. "Patients who want their death hastened usually by increasing their morphine."
"Right," Kevorkian says.
"They don't call it death by doctor, but that's what it is," Wallace remarks.
"There's where the law creates immorality in medicine. Any act, medical act should never be done in an atmosphere of fear and concern and secrecy," Kevorkian says. "Doctors now are sneaking around and doing it."
"If you make death by a doctor legal, would you be making suicide too easy for people who are depressed, who should be getting treatment instead?" Wallace asks.
"That's a medical thing," Kevorkian says. "The doctors will determine is this genuine or not. Is this depression or not? Who else but doctors know what depression is? They can tell."
Kevorkian, 79, says his health is just fair. "I used to pride myself on my health. But that liver disease fright, it concerns me," he tells Wallace.
"I understand that you make $980 a month currently," Wallace remarks.
"I don't know. It's been awhile since I saw any income," Kevorkian says.
"From Social Security and your pension," Wallace says. "From hospital pension."
"So how are you going to support Jack Kevorkian, now that you're a free man?" Wallace asks.
"That's enough for Jack Kevorkian," Kevorkian replies.
"Ah, come on," Wallace says.
"I'm single. It's easy. You can see I don't care for fancy clothes," Kevorkian says, laughing.
"You're a happy man, aren't you?" Wallace asks.
"I'm content. I'm content. You know, I mean, I'm doing what I think is important," Kevorkian says. "And when you do these things, then like Bernard Shaw says, 'Man doing that can never lose his self-respect.' And that's all that matters."
Produced by Robert Anderson
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