Dignity for Dr. Death

After embarrassments at lectures, UF feared something would mar Kevorkian's visit.

Published January 16, 2008

GAINESVILLE - A few dozen protestors came out Tuesday night with pictures of unborn fetuses and prolife posters, ready to stand their ground against Jack Kevorkian supporters advocating dignity in death.

Security was tight at the University of Florida basketball arena, but the police kept their Taser guns holstered and no one stormed the stage where Kevorkian, euthanasia advocate and convicted felon, gave his largest public lecture since walking out of a Michigan prison seven months ago.

Instead, most in the crowd of nearly 4,900 greeted Kevorkian with applause.

The lecture went as smooth as university officials could have hoped, given Kevorkian's controversial beliefs and the security problems at recent high-profile lectures.

For Kevorkian, who was paid $50,000 from student activity fees, Tuesday night marked a chance to spread his message of prison reform and civil rights related to euthanasia.

"I suppose this is the first time you've had an ex-con lecture you," joked Kevorkian, 79. "I'm doing what Thomas Jefferson said to do: 'Educate and inform the whole mass of people.' I feel proud to be able to do this."

During his hourlong, sometimes rambling, speech, the former pathologist reiterated his support for assisted suicide and said it should be turned into "a medical service" for willing patients.

"My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death," he said. "My aim was to end suffering. It's got to be decriminalized."

He also blasted the U.S. prison system as punitive and ineffective.

"We've got to have a system that's fairer and more humane," he said. "Violence breeds counterviolence. Our system just removes you from society and gives you no way to repay your guilt."

Civil rights and prison reform are new causes for Kevorkian. He's best known for helping dozens of dying patients die faster. Dubbed "Dr. Death," Kevorkian claims he assisted in at least 130 suicides before his 1999 conviction for the second-degree murder of a terminally ill patient suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was sentenced to 10 to 25 years but was paroled in June after serving eight.

Kevorkian chose UF for his first major public speech. He was supposed to come in October, but the visit was delayed after UF police Tasered a student who disrupted Sen. John Kerry's campus lecture in September.

UF officials have spent the months since preparing for Kevorkian, hoping to avoid a repeat of the international "Don't Tase me, bro!" embarrassment.

They didn't want police to be too aggressive. Yet they didn't want security Tuesday night to be lax, as critics said was the case in November when protestors took the stage during a speech by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

So UF representatives held meetings, met with O'Connell Center staff members, and traveled in November to Wayne State University to witness the reaction when Kevorkian spoke to about 250 people.

Tuesday's crowd was far larger, 4,867. People snaked around the O'Connell Center 90 minutes before the free lecture was scheduled to start.

About two dozen protestors from Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala stood in the designated "protest zone" holding posters that declared "Death is not welcome here." Nearby, two men held up a large banner showing a fetus the size of a quarter.

"I can see he wants to reach the youth with his message," said Queen of Peace church member Joan Reilly, 77. "And that is tragic."

UF freshman Jenna Bordelom stood in line as the sun fell and the temperature dipped, hoping to snag a last-minute ticket.

"How many times do you get to see Dr. Kevorkian?" said the 18-year-old Melbourne resident. "I don't really have a stance. I just want to hear his views."

Bordelom smiled.

"And I kind of wanted to see if something like the Taser thing would happen again."

To the great relief of UF officials, it didn't.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansicker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.