Inside a Michigan prison, inmate 284797 planned a secret phone call. For him, prison was "the worst kind of slavery” in this country. Jack Kevorkian was bored. Frustrated. Isolated. As local professor Bryan Farha recalls, the controversial doctor "was starving to talk to somebody.” A roomful of Oklahoma college students wound up as that somebody when Kevorkian reached them in January 2004 — without permission from prison officials. "Dr. Death” engaged the students with a candid, often intense, tone. At one point, he is asked about his eccentric behavior and yells: "You can't do this quietly because it doesn't work!” The students Kevorkian spoke with that day remain some of the only people who heard his voice while he was locked up for a 1999 murder conviction. He was released in June due to good behavior after serving eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence. His probation prevents him from promoting or participating in assisted suicide, which adds value to the tape. "We got the uncut version of the real Jack Kevorkian,” said Farha, a professor of behavioral studies in education at Oklahoma City University. Kevorkian was convicted of murder after euthanizing a terminally ill man, Thomas Youk, who asked "Dr. Death” to help him die.
Low profileThe call wasn't publicly disclosed until now. "We just thought about the educational benefit of making it happen,” said Ruth Holmes, Kevorkian's trial consultant and close friend, who helped arrange the call. Kevorkian had turned down interview requests from journalists such as Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters, electing to speak with the students instead. The call was made to a class of University of Central Oklahoma students. The Oklahoman was not permitted to make a copy of the recording, but Farha allowed a reporter to listen to it.
No regretsKevorkian said he didn't regret euthanizing Youk or allowing CBS to broadcast video of Youk's death on "60 Minutes,” which ultimately led to his conviction. The only thing Kevorkian regrets, he said, is the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear his case. "It's a cowardly court who refuses to face this issue,” he said. "I figured that my conviction would force the court into a decision, but I was dead wrong.” That meant he was stuck in prison, which he bluntly called "boring,” earning laughs from the students.
Civil disobedienceKevorkian's eccentric tactics drew the ire of many during his trials in the 1990s. He once attached a ball and chain to his leg and appeared in court and also burned court orders. It was all part of his controversial crusade to legalize assisted suicide. When Farha asked if his flamboyant style led to his incarceration, Kevorkian's voice quickly sharpened: He shouted: "All the petitions and all the writing doesn't help. You must take action, and the action of necessity must be flamboyant because of its controversial nature.” Today, Oregon is the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium also allow it. Farha then asked if Kevorkian thought he could have been acquitted if he hired an attorney for the Youk case. Kevorkian chose to represent himself, despite being acquitted in previous trials. Again, Kevorkian's voice rose to a boil. "I didn't want success, I told you. I wanted the conviction!” Students laughed when he added: "I'm not stupid. I know what I'm doing.”
FearKevorkian repeatedly pointed to fear as a reason the public generally disagrees with his stance that assisted suicide is an inherent human right. "Fear controls this country,” Kevorkian said. He quoted French philosopher Voltaire, saying "it is dangerous to be right on matters in which the established authorities are wrong.” The Patriot Act was one example Kevorkian gave of fear dictating people's decisions. He called the U.S a "Dark Age society.”
Assisted death: why, whenKevorkian's tone softened when he explained the underlying reason for his stance on assisted suicide. "I don't like to see suffering humanity.” But he then revealed something Farha said he'd never heard Kevorkian say before. Farha still expresses surprise when hearing Kevorkian say that psychiatric conditions could, in some instances, warrant assisted suicide. "That's an extreme position,” Farha said this summer. "I wish I would have thought to ask him which conditions he was referring to.” One student asked if Kevorkian, who said he is agnostic, would still believe euthanasia was ethical if he was a Christian. "Euthanasia has nothing to do with religion. It's a medical problem,” Kevorkian said. "The person himself, the patient, has the right to choose.”
HistoryAn automated voice interrupted the conversation: "You have one minute left.” The professors thanked Kevorkian for his "courage” to stand up for his beliefs and make the secret call. "They (the students) knew they had heard history,” Farha said. "You people have had a very unusual experience,” Holmes told the students.
Bryan FarhaOklahoma City University professor teaches behavioral studies in education, but set the call up for students at the University of Central Oklahoma.
The secret call: how it happenedKevorkian's secret call was an unexpected surprise. Bryan Farha, an Oklahoma City University professor of behavioral studies in education, had been sending questions to Kevorkian that students in his Death and Dying class had for Kevorkian for about two years. Kevorkian's trial consultant and friend, Ruth Holmes, would relay the questions to Kevorkian while he was in prison and call Farha's class with the answers. Kevorkian never joined the calls because prison officials wouldn't allow it. About that time, University of Central Oklahoma sociology professor Brenda Chappell heard about the unique situation and asked Farha to arrange and co-conduct similar correspondence for students in her Social Problems course. Days before a scheduled call between Holmes and Chappell's class, the professors learned Kevorkian's defiant nature hadn't soured behind bars; Dr. Death was considering defying his holders' rules and speaking directly to the students. Farha joined Chappell and about 45 of her students in the UCO classroom on Jan. 30, 2004. Through clever use of his prison-approved call list and some unorthodox conference calling, Kevorkian reached the students. "I was just amazed he would jeopardize his position in prison,” Chappell said. "He did this for a group of people who'd never met him.”
Why he called"He thinks the hope for the future is young people,” Holmes said. "He has almost given up on educating older people because they don't have the power that the energetic, young people do.” Kevorkian's respect for Farha was another reason he made the secret call, she said. "We knew that was a man who was in the process of educating and informing in a way they (students) should be given options to talk about subjects and things that should not be shoved under the carpet,” Holmes said.
A learning toolPlaying the tape "never fails” to stimulate student engagement to a level "almost off the charts,” Farha said. The intent of playing the tape isn't to sway students to support Kevorkian, but to encourage healthy discussion of controversial issues related to death and dying, Farha said. "We have an angle on Kevorkian that I don't think anyone else has,” Farha said. He now plays the recording for students in various courses each semester. During the Death and Dying course, the Kevorkian recording is played during a chapter on the legal aspects of death.