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People v. Kevorkian

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Kevorkian (Defendant), was indicted on two counts of murder for assisting in the deaths of two women. The women had come to Defendant in order to use his “suicide machine” – a device that allowed a person to take their own life in a calm, painless manner.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Intentionally providing the means by which another person commits suicide does not rise to the level of murder.

    Facts. The Defendant developed a unique device to assist a person in taking his own life. Two women, both suffering from painful diseases, sought the assistance of the Defendant’s machine in ending their lives. The device consisted of IV tubes of anesthesia and potassium chloride. A string tied to a finger of the person committing suicide controlled the release of anesthesia which, once released, would cause the hand to drop and thereby pull on a second string also tied to a finger that released the IV of poisonous potassium chloride. The device worked on one of the women, ending her life. Defendant was unsuccessful in inserting the IV needle into the other woman and reverted to using a cylinder of carbon monoxide with a face-mask attachment. The second woman’s life ended as a result of her turning the gas valve, which Defendant had shown her how to do.

    Issue. Is a person guilty of murder if they provide another person with the means to take their own life?

    Held. No. Remanded.
    There is a distinction between active participation in a suicide and mere involvement in events leading up to the suicide. Active participation includes firing a gun or pushing the plunger on a hypodermic needle – the final overt act that causes death. Furnishing the means to commit suicide, on the other hand, constitutes mere involvement in events preceding a suicide and does not rise to the level of murder. Here, defendant simply provided a device by which two women could take their lives. The devices operated in such a manner that the final overt act preceding death – pulling a string or turning a gas valve – was the action of each of the women, not the defendant.

    Dissent. The distinction created by the majority between participation in events leading up to a suicide and active participation in the suicide itself, is an invitation to let the result turn on whether Defendant intended to kill for impure reasons. Such a distinction risks abuse to the most vulnerable members of our society – the sick, elderly, those suffering from depression – by reducing culpability for those who would assist in their deaths.

    Discussion. The court in this case held that a defendant must have actively participated in a suicide in order to face prosecution for murder. “Active” participation means involvement in the final overt act that causes death.


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