Rx For Death

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Death abides with all fanatics, not least because they are so often willing to risk it for their cause. It presses close around Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who has made death his specialty, closer still last week as he returned to the practice that so often had seemed destined to land him in jail. "To go to jail is the ultimate slavery," he told TIME. "If I have lost my freedom, I have lost something more valuable than life. Therefore, continuing life becomes pointless. It's as simple as that." Dramatic self-negation would be a fitting exit for Death's Impresario. But last week Kevorkian made an uncharacteristically humble reappearance with suicide No. 16. By underplaying his hand, he may have found a way to avoid jail -- and prolong his controversial crusade.

On May 16, when Kevorkian attended the suicide of Ronald Mansur, a Realtor with bone and lung cancer, he did not bring a video camera, and when it was over, he did not call a press conference. There was no suicide note; there were no relatives looking on and no explanations. Just an anonymous call to 911, telling police where to find the body -- in effect, telling the State of Michigan to go to hell.

The last time Kevorkian hauled out his carbon monoxide mask, Michigan's lawmakers decided it was time to shut down his practice. In February the state declared his specialty a felony punishable by up to four years in jail and a $2,000 fine. Three previous attempts to charge the doctor with murder had failed, and his opponents relished the chance to make something stick. The A.C.L.U. challenged the law, and Kevorkian promised to postpone any further medicide until after the court reached a decision. But apparently he ran out of patience.

Police arrived at a drab cinder-block real-estate office to find Mansur dressed in slippers and wrapped in a white-knit blanket; he was slumped in an easy chair with the telltale mask strapped to his face. A string tied to the middle finger of his left hand was connected to a clip on the tubes running from two cylinders labeled CARBON MONOXIDE. The body was gaunt, the skin yellow-green. For the past few months, Mansur had been too sick to drive and carried a morphine pump around with him to combat the pain. "He was in hell," says longtime friend Donna Cady. "He would cry on the phone." She adds, "I know that when he put that mask on his face he had his finger sticking up in the air to say screw you all for the laws that made me suffer like this."

That would be a gesture familiar to Dr. Kevorkian, who has made defiance of the law a passion second only to suicide. "When the law itself is intrinsically immoral," says Kevorkian's irrepressible mouthpiece, lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, "there is a greater duty to violate the law." Yet this time around Kevorkian merely tiptoed past it. Fieger says the doctor isn't taking any credit for helping a desperate man die. He just wanted to watch.

The police arrested him anyway, but Kevorkian refused to cooperate. "He will not tell us what happened inside the building," says inspector Gerald Stewart, who heads the major-crimes division of the Detroit police department. "We will have to establish that someone did assist in a suicide, and it's kind of difficult." After two hours, during which he watched the Knicks- Hornets play-off game, police released Kevorkian into Fieger's custody.

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