Taking on Dr. Kevorkian Proved Costly For Prosecuting Attorney: 'I Enforce the Law'

From 1988 through 1996, Richard Thompson served as prosecuting attorney for Oakland County, Mich. He achieved a conviction rate of approximately 98 percent, while major crime in the county of more than 1 million people declined by 32 percent during his tenure. Nevertheless, Thompson lost his bid for a third term in a recent primary. Election polls showed that his three attempted prosecutions of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the retired pathologist who has “assisted” at more than 40 suicides, played a key role in his defeat.

As Thompson leaves office, a 20-count criminal case is pending against Kevorkian in Oakland County for assisting suicides and other alleged crimes. Even if Thompson's successor, Dave Gorcyca, decides to drop the charges, a criminal case in Michigan's Ionia County is also pending. The information purportedly shows that a person whose death the county's medical examiner's office had ruled to have occurred by natural causes, may have actually been an assisted suicide attended by Kevorkian.

Richard Thompson graduated from the University of Michigan. After serving as a captain with U.S. Army Intelligence, he graduated from Wayne State University Law School. Following a stint as an associate attorney with a firm in Detroit, he became a partner in his own firm in 1968.

In 1973, Thompson began a 24-year career in law enforcement when he became the chief assistant prosecutor of Oakland County. Thompson, whose term ended Dec. 31, spoke with the Register recently.

Register: Can you tie your loss in the primary directly to the Kevorkian prosecutions?

Thompson:After I lost, a local newspaper released the result of a poll. They found that even though a majority of people thought that my performance as a prosecutor was “excellent” or “very good,” 44 percent said they voted for my opponent because of my prosecutions of Kevorkian.

My opponent (David Gorcyca) said that nine out of 10 of his supporters were supporting him to protest my prosecutions of Kevorkian. In Oakland County, where Kevorkian lives, the public opinion polls have shown consistently that the majority— 60 percent—of the people support physician-assisted suicide. Seventy-five percent of the public here in Oakland County thought he should never be prosecuted for it.

That was what I was up against, but I knew that already. My political consultants told me to stay away from Kevorkian. But he kept dropping bodies at medical establishments after assisting in suicides, and I had to do my job. The common law in Michigan holds that assisted suicide is murder.

Has the Catholic Church's stand on euthanasia and assisted suicide had any bearing on your attempts to prosecute Kevorkian?

The Catholic Church has taken the strongest stand [against euthanasia], and I have been deeply influenced by two of John Paul II's encyclicals— Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).

When a secular journalist starts asking about Kevorkian, the first question is always: “What is your religion?” They want to say: “You're going after Kevorkian because of your religious beliefs.”

This is the first time in 24 years in the prosecutor's office that people are asking me about my religion. I prosecute murder cases, and murder is covered by the Ten Commandments, and theft cases are covered by the Ten Commandments. But the press has never connected those two.

All at once, because of the issue of assisted suicide, they think that the Kevorkian prosecutions must be a religious action. Not true. As a prosecutor, I must enforce the laws, and that's what I do. There is a law in Michigan that prohibits assisted suicide.

Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian's attorney, has exhausted every appellate remedy that he's had to try to overturn that law, and he's failed. He went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, but they upheld that there's a law against assisted suicide. He appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and they refused to hear it. He's tried a petition drive, and he couldn't get enough signatures to overturn the law. He went to the state legislature, and they have refused to legalize euthanasia.

The religious dimension comes into play when you stay true to your convictions and your oath of office. You don't fold every time there's a political opinion poll out there that suggests otherwise.

In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope says that political leaders shouldn't ignore what they know is right merely to satisfy the temporary majority. What I would be doing is substituting the majority's judgment for my oath of office—you can never do that.

I spoke at a law class at The Catholic University of America a couple of months ago. They introduced me by saying that “St. Thomas More, when he disagreed with the public and refused to compromise, got his head chopped off. The only thing that happened to Dick Thompson is that he lost an election.” I can always say, “It's not too bad, I still have my head!”

Are you a member of any denomination?

Allow me to give you a long answer. I was baptized in the Armenian Apostolic Church. However, when I was growing up, I didn't really attend that church. I attended a Baptist Sunday school until I was 14. Later on in life, I didn't attend that church that often anymore. However, I was married in the Catholic Church. We have three sons, and two of them are attending a Catholic school.

Why do people in Oakland County support Kevorkian?

It's a very pro-choice county, even though it's Republican. It sort of reflects, in general terms, the sentiment of a lot of folks that there should be legalized physician-assisted suicide. The media has really assisted Kevorkian in his advocacy. Every time Kevorkian assisted in a death, they would tout him as an angel of mercy. They would paint a very sympathetic picture of Kevorkian as being very compassionate. There was a lot of immediate emotional sympathy. The media has played a dominant role in developing and framing the issue.

Why do you think that Kevorkian holds such contempt for the law?

My feeling is that Kevorkian, all his life, has been a failure as a pathologist. He never really treated live patients. He's had a total fascination with death, ever since he was a medical student. While he was working in a hospital during his residency, he used to take the midnight shift because he thought more people died during that shift. He had a standing order that whenever someone died, he wanted to be notified immediately, so that he could go to the room and look into the patient's eyes and see what they looked like at the moment of death.

He's been involved in some bizarre experiments. He's transfused blood from cadavers into live patients. He was always right on the edge, and he couldn't keep a job in regular hospitals. He retired and decided he was going to change the practice of medicine.

For a while, he merely talked about it. But when he assisted in the death of Janet Adkins in 1990, there was an outpouring of public support, while the press supported him, too. He became emboldened. He's basically stated that he doesn't care what the law is or what the U.S. Supreme Court does. He's going to assist in killing people. He has a total disdain for the law.

At this point in his life, this man who was a failure has become an international celebrity. He's gotten the support; his lawyer is very flamboyant and good at personally attacking anyone who opposes Kevorkian. Fieger has viciously attacked Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, Gov. John Engler and the United States Supreme Court. He attacks any public figure who dares to stand in their way. It hasn't worked on me, but it has taken its toll. If you throw enough mud, some of it is going to stick in the public arena. I've been taking slings and arrows for six years while prosecuting him.

How do Fieger and Kevorkian support themselves?

Fieger is a very successful medical malpractice lawyer. Kevorkian was basically living off social security, but Fieger has given him a home in a nice part of the county, and he's better off now than he's ever been.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on two landmark assisted suicide lower court rulings, Jan. 8. How do you think they'll rule?

They've learned their lesson from Roe v. Wade. If they could take that back, they would. Historically, there has never been legalization of assisted suicide. A majority of states have had laws against it since their foundings.

The American Medical Association, which represents 290,000 doctors, wrote an amicus brief that strongly opposes any legalization of physician-assisted suicide on the basis that it would destroy the fundamental trust between physician and patient. It would also destroy the physician's chief goal—to heal.

Catholics, the Lutherans and the Southern Baptists have joined in a brief against it. There have been several briefs from all areas of American culture that have opposed legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

I don't think the justices will find any basis in the law to support it. I think they're going to realize, as they apparently have with regard to Roe v. Wade, that this is an argument they should leave to the political branches of government, rather than eliminating the argument by saying assisted suicide is a constitutional right.

The court has been severely injured by the Roe v. Wade decision. They thought they'd end the debate on abortion, but 24 years later, the issue is hotter than ever. The court has lost part of its legitimacy because of it. If they find a new right here, the right of private killing— because that's what physician-assisted suicide would be—then the court might lose totally its legitimacy in our society.

What will happen, then, if the Supreme Court leaves it up to the states, as you're predicting?

When more people are informed about it, I think they'd turn it down. We saw that in California and in the state of Washington on referendums. When both sides were able to get a fair hearing and make their case, voters turned it down, even though polls showed that a majority of people supported physician-assisted suicide.

Why is there such support for euthanasia?

My view is that the support is pretty superficial, because most people haven't gone beyond the slogan stage. They haven't thought about what the ramifications would be if we accepted physician-assisted suicide. They look at it in slogans—death with dignity; patient autonomy; free choice; alleviating suffering. We're a compassionate people, and they feel this is a compassionate thing to do. They haven't studied history. Nazi Germany killed millions of people on the basis of a similar argument: that some lives aren't worthy of being lived.

I have an article that shocks people. I tell them it's from the front page of The New York Times, and I read from this article that we're going to eliminate the suffering of incurable people by assisting them in their deaths, and that two doctors would have to make this determination.

Most people think this story is about Kevorkian. The date of the report, however, is Oct. 8, 1933. The headline is “Nazis Plan to Kill People Who Are Suffering Incurable Diseases,” and “German Religious Groups Oppose Same.” We're repeating history.

Do you sense that the elderly generally oppose or support physician-assisted suicide?

A lot of elderly people are afraid. Take the Netherlands, which has accepted physician-assisted suicide. A majority of elderly people in the Netherlands worry that they're going to be killed against their will. Some of them are carrying cards on their person, saying they don't want to be candidates for physician-assisted suicide.

Because of that the elderly are afraid to go to hospitals, to see a doctor, or to even tell their own families that they're ill. Slowly, the right to physician-assisted suicide is becoming a duty. The older you get, the more concerned you get that society is determining the quality of life based on utility. Are you still a productive citizen?

Because of managed health care and the rationing of health care, the elderly will be the group to whom we will say: “You've already had a full life, and your life expectancy is long.” They're going to be manipulated, through the withholding of treatment, to opt for assisted suicide.

Even more scared than the elderly are the disabled. They know there's an undercurrent of discrimination in all of this. When disabled persons—say a quadriplegic— says they're going to commit suicide, we all understand why. But if it's someone whose body is apparently fully functioning, we all say: “Oh, what a tragedy. You can't do that.”

Underneath it all is a silent message that the disabled are not as human as the rest of us. The Catholic Church teaches that all life is intrinsically valuable. We can't make distinctions. But that's what's going to happen if we legalize euthanasia, as we begin, saying “this life is OK,” but “this life is not so good.”

Do you think many doctors support Kevorkian?

Individual doctors generally oppose what Kevorkian does, even though they might think of a couple of patients who might have been better off dead.

They don't think Kevorkian is a doctor, in the true sense of the word. He's been a pathologist and has never treated patients. He doesn't know anything special about the illnesses that he's killing people for, or about depression. He can't even evaluate someone as to whether they're depressed, and yet he's making decisions about whether people should live or die. The vast majority of doctors don't support him. There's a false compassion to Kevorkian. He thinks it's an expression of compassion to kill those who are suffering. True compassion means helping bear someone's suffering and doing everything you can to give them a meaningful life, whether they have an hour to live or a year.

The medical profession has to change, and doctors realize that. They've fallen down on the job, in giving compassionate care to people they know they can't cure. In the past, when they realized they couldn't cure someone, they'd turn their backs on them. But their medical responsibilities don't end there. They should take care of those persons and make them comfortable. They have to become more aware of pain management controls. The Hospice movement could be very important in this area. The vast majority—95 to 100 percent—of people who want to die are depressed. Take away their depression, their desire to die goes away also. One way you can take away their depression is to take away their physical pain. Virtually 100 percent of pain can be controlled. That's an area a lot of doctors need to educate themselves in.

Who do you see leading the charge against assisted suicide?

I think it's going to be the disabled who will be most involved. At an early court hearing, Kevorkian said— and I'm paraphrasing—that the disabled, by voluntarily terminating their lives, would enhance public life and morals. He's made a direct attack on the disabled. They also realize that, based on history, they will be the targets.

—William Murray