No one person has had as much impact on the idea of euthanasia and the “right-to-die” in Michigan history as Dr. Jack Kevorkian. In his scope as a physician, he assisted at least 130 terminally ill people between 1990 and 1998 in ending their lives. In each case, Dr. Kevorkian alleged that each individual was attached to a euthanasia device he had constructed and the individual pushed a button that would release drugs or chemicals into his or her system that would result in death. For his roles in the deaths of individuals that he had helped, Dr. Kevorkian was charged and tried four times for assisting suicides between 1994 and 1997. In the first three instances, he was acquitted with the assistance of Attorney Geoffrey Fieger. However, he elected to represent himself in his fourth criminal trial and was convicted of second-degree murder. As a result, he was sentenced to serve 10 to 25 years in prison (ultimately he served eight years before being released on parole).
The legislative history to criminalize assisted suicide in Michigan also has a unique pathway. The Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 270 of 1992 (MCL 752.1027) providing a temporary ban on assisted suicide until November 25, 1995. This was intended to be a stop-gap until more permanent legislation was agreed upon, but that never occurred and the statute expired on the sunset date. In the meantime, the legislation was challenged in court by Dr. Kevorkian with respect to its constitutionality. Namely, Dr. Kevorkian asserted that the “right-to-die” is a fundamental right that the legislature has no right to infringe upon. Finally, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Michigan v Kevorkian, 445 Mich 917; 521 NW2d 4 (1994) that assisting in suicide is a common law offense and that no protected right to suicide or suicide assistance is found in the state or federal constitution. Therefore, constitutional law does not prohibit a state from imposing criminal penalties for assisting a suicide, so the provisions of the temporary ban were valid.
These court rulings paved the way for the Legislature to agree upon and for Governor John Engler to sign Public Act 296 of 1998 that gave Michigan a permanent ban on assisted suicide. Effective September 1, 1998, state law provides the following:
“A person who knows that an individual intends to kill himself or herself and does ANY OF THE FOLLOWING with the intent to assist the individual in killing himself or herself is guilty of criminal assistance to the killing of an individual, a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 5 years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both:”
- “Provides the means by which the individual attempts to kill himself or herself or kills himself or herself.” MCL 750.329a(1)(a).
- “Participates in an act by which the individual attempts to kill himself or herself or kills himself or herself.” MCL 750.329a(1)(b).
- “Helps the individual plan to attempt to kill himself or herself or to kill himself or herself.” MCL 750.329a(1)(c).
This law does not apply to withholding or withdrawing medical treatment. MCL 750.329a(2). Refusing to accept medical treatment where the natural consequence will be death is not the same as taking an affirmative action that would cause death such as ingesting poisonous pills, injecting a deadly substance or asphyxiating with gas such as carbon monoxide. A patient (or his or her duly-appointed patient advocate) will not be liable for prosecution by stopping or refusing to accept medical treatment that will artificially delay death.
In addition, this “law does not prohibit a prosecution under the common law offense of assisting in a suicide, but a person shall not be convicted under both this section and that common law offense for conduct arising out of the same transaction.” MCL 750.329a(3). A person may be charged and convicted of assisting suicide as an indictable offense at common law not codified in statute. The penalty for being found guilty of common law assisted suicide is a felony conviction “punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not more than 5 years or by a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both in the discretion of the court.” MCL 750.505.
If the circumstances of the assisted suicide suggest that the individual’s death was less than voluntary, then nothing prohibits the prosecuting attorney from charging a more serious crime against the offender. Causing a person by force to commit suicide is murder. Causing, by force or coercion, a person to attempt suicide is attempted murder. Both of these crimes are punishable by life in prison or any term of years (life without the possibility of parole if found guilty of first-degree murder).
The assisted suicide ban statute is not limited to physicians like Dr. Kevorkian. A family member or friend can also be prosecuted if they participated in the death of another. A friend that provides the pills or poisonous substance to the decedent as the means to commit suicide can be liable under the statute. Even a family member that helps plan a suicide or attempt at suicide (e.g. making arrangements to drive to the Mackinac Bridge for decedent to jump to his or her death) can result in criminal liability. A concerned person worried about a dear friend or family member wishing to die would be better advised to steer them towards professional help instead of participating in an ill-fated suicide attempt.
Anyone facing assisted suicide charges needs skilled legal counsel on their side to aggressively protect their rights. Given the notorious history surrounding assisted suicide, prosecutors and judges will not take these allegations lightly. The risk of significant incarceration in state prison is very high. A criminal defense lawyer can ensure that the prosecutor is held to their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If you or a loved one is charged with any crime or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.