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Kevorkian Case: Kevorkian delivers his own opening

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Editor's Note: As part of's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from This story was first published in 1999.

(Court TV) -- Representing himself in his murder trial, Dr. Jack Kevorkian argued in his opening statement that he did not intend to kill Thomas Youk, but rather felt compelled to do so because his duty as a physician demanded it.

Kevorkian compared his situation to that of an executioner, arguing that the executioner also doesn't intend to kill, but has a job to do -- a job that society sanctions.

Kevorkian said he was not a media hound. "The press makes me a celebrity. They make me a celebrity by these court actions," he said.

The reputed "Dr. Death" faces first-degree murder charges for his involvement in the death of Lou Gehrig's disease patient Thomas Youk last September. Kevorkian videotaped himself injecting Youk with the drugs that ended Youk's life and submitted the tapes to CBS' "60 Minutes," which showed the death to a national audience on November 23.

Kevorkian has said he did what he did in order to make his case for euthanasia in a court of law. In his opening statement Kevorkian said he wanted "to get into this sanctum sanctorium where it is difficult to lie and get away with it."

During his opening, Kevorkian proposed to define malice as a vicious act that required a vicious will, prompting prosecutor John Skrzynski to object that Kevorkian was making a legal argument, rather than laying out the facts, something an attorney can not do in the opening statement.

Outside the presence of the jury, Skrzynski said that malice was defined simply as the intent to kill, and that Kevorkian was inappropriately trying to get the jury to consider viciousness when determining malice. He also pointed out that the prosecution made a pre-trial motion to prevent this from happening.

Judge Jessica Cooper agreed with the prosecutors and Kevorkian agreed to stay within the boundaries set by Cooper.

Cooper strongly counseled Kevorkian to confer with his attorneys after the objection was raised. Kevorkian refused, saying he wanted to get back to the jury.

When the jury returned he told them that history will judge what they do. Finally he said, "What I did for Thomas Youk was not a crime. [It] was not murder." Despite the objection of defense attorneys, Cooper ruled Monday morning that Dr. Jack Kevorkian can represent himself at his murder trial.

"Do you realize the risk involved, that you could spend the rest of your life in prison?" Cooper asked Kevorkian during Monday's hearing, before the start of jury selection.

"There's not much of it left, your honor," Kevorkian said. "I intended to represent myself all along."

Cooper carefully asked Kevorkian whether he had seen the inside of a prison, whether he understood the limitations of the questions he could ask witnesses, and whether he understood that he had to follow the rules of the court. Kevorkian replied that he did and that he intended to "say nothing but the truth" at trial. Cooper then hesitantly granted Kevorkian's request.

Kevorkian said that he was not dissatisfied with the service of his attorneys, Lisa Dwyer and David Gorosh, who held a press conference immediately after opening statements. Gorosh told reporters Kevorkian conducted himself with "eloquence, statesmanship, and grace."

Gorosh said he would help Kevorkian deal with evidentiary issues and compliance with pre-trial orders as the need arose. He added that Kevorkian had handled himself capably so far. More importantly, Gorosh said Kevorkian has the "sympathetic ear of the court," and that the judge appears to be trying to allow Kevorkian the opportunity to make his arguments. Gorosh said he expected jurors to "inherently understand this was not a murder."

Although Kevorkian's intent was to create a forum for euthanasia, jurors may not hear any debate over the ethics of assisted suicide or the pain Youk endured while battling Lou Gehrig's disease. On March 11, just under two weeks before the start of jury selection, prosecutors dropped the assisted suicide charge against Kevorkian in an attempt to bar testimony about Youk's condition from trial. Two days before, Cooper had admitted testimony about Youk's pain and suffering, ruling that it was relevant to assisted suicide but irrelevant to murder.

On Friday Cooper denied the defense's request to readmit assisted suicide as a lesser related charge to murder. Jurors will have to choose murder or acquittal. However, the defense contends second-degree murder is a necessary lesser included charge and that the jury is almost certain to be instructed on it.

Prosecutors believe that dropping the assisted suicide charge will enable the trial to focus solely on the question of murder and whether Kevorkian intended to purposely kill Youk. They believe the videotape -- and Kevorkian's own words -- prove his motives and that he intentionally killed Youk. Kevorkian even suggests that Youk was initially hesitant about being used in his right to die crusade and that his motives may have been selfish.

Nonetheless, prosecutors may encounter problems presenting the videotape without referring to Youk's illness. To convict Kevorkian of first-degree murder, they must prove his motive -- which apparently was to relieve Youk's suffering and to settle the debate over assisted suicide.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Kevorkian could face life in prison without parole. He has said that he will starve himself to death if sent to prison -- and Monday's ruling may have brought him closer to his vow. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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