- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2011

DETROIT (AP) - Jack Kevorkian, the audacious doctor who spurred on the national right-to-die debate with a homemade suicide machine that helped end the lives of dozens of ailing people, died Friday at a Detroit-area hospital after a brief illness. He was 83.

Kevorkian died at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he had been hospitalized since last month with pneumonia and kidney problems, close friend and prominent attorney Mayer Morganroth said.

The retired pathologist, who said he injected lethal drugs that helped some 130 people die during the 1990s, likened himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi and called prosecutors Nazis and his critics religious fanatics. He burned state orders against him, showed up at court in costume, called doctors who didn’t support him “hypocritic oafs” and challenged authorities to stop him or make his actions legal.

“The issue’s got to be raised to the level where it is finally decided,” Kevorkian said during a broadcast of CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired a Lou Gehrig’s disease patient’s videotaped 1998 death as Kevorkian challenged prosecutors to charge him in the case that eventually sent him to prison.

Experts credit Kevorkian, who insisted that people had the right to have a medical professional help them die, with publicizing physician-assisted suicide. Even so, few states made it legal. Laws went into effect in Oregon in 1997 and Washington state in 2009, and a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling effectively legalized the practice in that state.

“Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity,” Kevorkian once said. “I put myself in my patients’ place. This is something I would want.”

In the end, however, he was too weak to take advantage of the option he offered others, said Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s former attorney.

“If he had enough strength to do something about it, he would have,” Fieger said at a news conference in Southfield. “Had he been able to go home Jack Kevorkian probably would not have allowed himself to go back to the hospital.”

Former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, whose office won the conviction that sent Kevorkian to prison, said he respected him for sacrificing his freedom for a cause he believed in, but he found “a certain amount of hypocrisy” in the doctor’s death. He rejected the rationale that Kevorkian was too weak to take his own life.

“There’s a time and place for Jack to have contemplated that,” Gorcyca said. “Other people were far less incapacitated than he was when he participated in those assisted suicides.”

People who died with Kevorkian’s help suffered from cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, paralysis. They died in their homes, an office, a Detroit island park, a remote cabin and the back of Kevorkian’s van.

An official cause of death for Kevorkian was not immediately determined, but Morganroth said it likely will be pulmonary thrombosis, a blood clot.

“I had seen him earlier and he was conscious,” said Morganroth, who added that the two spoke about Kevorkian’s pending release from the hospital and planned start of rehabilitation. “Then I left and he took a turn for the worst and I went back.”

Nurses played recordings of classical music by composer Johann Sebastian Bach for Kevorkian before he died, Morganroth said.

Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian catapulted into public consciousness in 1990 when he used his homemade “suicide machine” in his rusted Volkswagen van to inject lethal drugs into an Alzheimer’s patient who sought his help in dying.

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