IA Law Review: Notable Cases (People v. Kevorkian 1994)

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

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The Kevorkian cases are some of the best-known of modern times for their precedent and controversial nature. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician and euthanasia supporter, was tried five times between 1994 and 1999 for assisting terminally ill patients commit suicide. 

 

A summary of the 1994 case: Sherry Miller and Marjorie Wantz were two elderly women suffering from terminal illnesses that caused them unbearable pain and suffering. This inhibiting pain prompted them to approach physician Jack Kevorkian with assistance in ending their suffering. Kevorkian arranged for them to meet in a cabin and utilize his ‘suicide machine’. This machine attached strings to two of the individual’s fingers. The individual would first raise their hand to allow anesthesia to put them to sleep. Then, their hand would fall, triggering the other string which administered the lethal chemicals. Therefore, the ultimate decision to die was left wholly up to the individual. 

 

The machine, however, did not work successfully on Miller so Kevorkian brought out a cylinder of carbon monoxide gas and mask and instructed Miller on how to use them. Miller herself then breathed in the lethal gas till she passed. The machine worked successfully on Wantz. Kevorkian was charged with two counts of murder but the circuit judge dismissed the charges, citing that assisting an individual’s suicide didn’t equal outright murder. The court of appeals reversed this, so Kevorkian then appealed to Michigan’s supreme court.

 

Now let’s look at why the circuit court made the controversial decision to dismiss the charges.

 

The substance of the circuit court’s dismissal fundamentally lies mainly in the final perpetrator of the irreversible action. Both Miller and Wantz used devices on themselves to commit suicide and Kevorkian and his machines were mearly means to an end. In both cases, Kevorkian wasn’t the final committer of the action that put the individual to death, and therefore he is technically swept of any malfeasance as he didn’t necessarily “pull the trigger”. Although one could argue, and the dissenting opinion most certainly did, that the women weren’t of sound mind and weren’t fully able to make a rational decision, this argument unravels in the fact that they reached out to Kevorkian first and were made completely aware of the function of the machine. 

 

It is interesting to note, though, in a later case when Kevorkian himself administered a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, he was found guilty of second-degree homicide. This truly goes to show how the court’s decision was rooted very deeply in the final perpetrator of the act. When Kevorkian was merely the means to an end (Miller and Wantz), the courts couldn’t find enough evidence to convict him and his defense team was successful in their ‘lack of malfeasance’ angle. However, the moment Kevorkian committed the act himself, the prosecution could leverage their ‘ulterior motive angle’ which resulted in a sentencing of 10-25 years.

 

All in all, the Kevorkian cases are often regarded as so controversial and so interesting because they set a precedent in terms of the guilt of mediators and what qualifies as mens rea when there are consent externalities, power imbalances, and ulterior motives to consider. People v. Kevorkian Hobbins is analogous to the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” in that the main cause for the court’s ruling was the final perpetrator of the action, without really comprehensively acknowledging all guilty factors. However, one must be lenient when evaluating that as it’s extremely difficult to precisely trace all causes and effects of intent and consent as they are subjective and interconnected. Even though the case wasn’t simple and set a clear precedent, it nevertheless opened the conversation on euthanasia and the role of the middleman in malfeasance, which is a conversation that persists to this day.

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