Original article no longer available
August 19, 1996
Author: Kate Zernike, Globe Staff
Evidence that a Pembroke woman who died in Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s presence suffered from depression or substance abuse rather than a terminal illness could make hers the case that finally convinces a jury to convict the physician known as “Dr. Death,” a prosecutor said yesterday.
Richard Thompson, the Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor who has unsuccessfully prosecuted Kevorkian four times in five years, said the earlier cases failed because juries sympathized with the pain of the people who died and their wish to die before their terminal illnesses killed them.
But Judith A. Curren had a history of depression, Thompson said, and that might make jurors less willing to believe that she had a terminal illness. “There are a lot of people in this world who are depressed. We don’t consider them terminally ill,” Thompson said. “Jurors would be a little more troubled by that. It makes it a more winnable case for us.”
A Massachusetts clinician who treated Curren within the past five years said in an interview yesterday that the medications the 42-year-old registered nurse had been taking, which he said included painkillers and anti-anxiety medications, could have made her drug-addicted and depressed. “There’s no question she was ill. The question is — ill with what?” said the clinician, who asked not to be identified.
But right-to-die advocates that Curren had consulted in Massachusetts and in Michigan, including one present at her death, denied that the woman was depressed. She had waged an aggressive, nearly yearlong battle to get Kevorkian to help her die, they said, because she was permanently debilitated by chronic fatigue syndrome and fybromyalgia, a related and painful muscle disorder. Her husband said yesterday she also suffered from narcolepsy.
“If I had those illnesses, if I had the pain she was in, I would be depressed, too,” said Janet Good, founder of Hemlock Michigan, who was present at Curren’s death in Pontiac, Mich., and screens Kevorkian clients. “But not clinically depressed.” Much depends on the results of an autopsy and toxicology report, scheduled to be released today, which will show what drugs, if any, were in Curren’s body when she died, as well as whether she had any specific disease.
Curren’s husband, Dr. Franklin C. Curren, 57, said yesterday that his wife had been on painkillers and Luvox , an anti-depressant also used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. But he disputed the idea that she would have been drug-dependent.
But accusations of domestic conflict between the Currens also clouded the death, the 35th where Kevorkian has been present and the first involving a Massachusetts resident. Pembroke and State Police questioned Franklin Curren again yesterday, Plymouth District Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said. They also were talking to others who knew the Currens and with police in Winchester, where Curren had filed charges of domestic abuse against her husband in 1993. The charges were later dismissed.
Thompson, who was defeated in a primary fight for reelection by an opponent who accused him of wasting taxpayer money on Kevorkian prosecutions, said he would have to overcome major hurdles before he would be in a position to convict Kevorkian.
First, said Thompson, who will leave office after his successor is elected in November, it must be determined that the death was assisted. This has been difficult in past prosecutions because Kevorkian’s lawyers request that people present at the deaths withhold from police the details of the final moments.
Jurors in Michigan would probably expect prosecutors to show that Curren suffered from depression rather than the illnesses her husband and right-to-die advocates have said caused her so much pain. But many doctors, Thompson said, also consider chronic fatigue both treatable and non-fatal.
The autopsy results, he said, would be crucial in determining her diagnosis, as would the testimony of medical specialists.
“The concept has been advanced that people in terminal pain have a right to take their lives, as long as there are laws preventing anyone from taking a life when there is not a terminal illness,” he said. “This may be one of those cases where an abuse occurred.”
Indeed, Franklin Curren said yesterday that the couple had consulted many doctors to try to diagnose her illness, but none of them pinpointed chronic fatigue syndrome, even as it gained more recognition over the past decade.
A medical clinician who said Curren had consulted him when she lived on the North Shore, and who requested anonymity, yesterday disputed her diagnosis of chronic fatigue.
He said he believes that chronic fatigue syndrome is a real disease and not just a trendy name for depression, as some have suggested. But he also said that people who have chronic fatigue syndrome have symptoms like those of people with depression. Curren had come to him, he said, saying she was in a major depression and requesting painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs.
Kevorkian’s lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, did not respond to telephone messages left at his home and office yesterday. But two women who had spoken to Curren frequently in her last months angrily rejected the idea that she had been depressed or that her diseases were treatable.
They said she had suffered from chronic fatigue for 20 years, and become acutely ill over the last five, using a wheelchair and remaining bedridden for days at a time. Gail Kansky, a Needham resident who heads a 1,500-member chronic fatigue support group for New England, said a doctor discovered lesions on Curren’s brain a year ago, related to the chronic fatigue.
“That is not depression,” she said. “The only thing that forced her into this was knowing too much. She knew there was permanent damage. Even if therapy were found, it wasn’t going to help her.”
One in 1,000 US citizens has chronic fatigue, Kansky said, and of those, 8 to 10 percent have the debilitating pain that plagued Curren. “She was one of the four most severe patients we’ve seen in the 11 years we’ve had this group,” Kansky said.
Curren called Kevorkian in late winter, Wood and Kansky said, and began calling weekly in more recent months, as she grew frustrated that she was not “at the top of the list” for assisted suicide . Kevorkian has so many requests for help, Wood said, that he cannot respond quickly to each.
Kevorkian also read through an inch-thick pile of Curren’s medical records, said Wood, to make sure that her illness was not treatable. Wood said she had interviewed Curren, as she had all of Kevorkian’s other patients.
Wood said she had been shocked at the allegations of abuse in the Currens’ marriage. The two had been teary-eyed and tender in the moments before Curren died, she said.
The most recent domestic dispute was in late July. Pembroke police responded to a hangup 911 call from the Curren home, where Curren told them her husband of 12 years had dragged her out of bed and pulled the telephone away from her. The police said she later asked for the charges to be dismissed.
Franklin Curren insisted the disputes were over her wish to die, which he resisted. His wife told him several times she would divorce him if he did not agree to her desire to end her life, he said. But in the months leading up to her suicide, she had not mentioned divorce, he said.
“The domestic incidents are an obvious concern to a lot of people,” Sullivan, the district attorney, said. “But everybody is very much interested in the autopsy.”
Yet even if the autopsy disputes the diagnosis of terminal illness, Oakland County prosecutors face other hurdles in convicting Kevorkian, who has become something of a folk hero.
Two judges and two defense attorneys involved in Thompson’s prosecutions of Kevorkian have filed grievances against his office. The subject of the grievances is not public. However, one judge has stated that a prosecutor in Thompson’s office misrepresented one of the judge’s previous rulings during trial. The judge sought to have the staffer dismissed from the case because of his affiliation with Hospice, which opposes physician-assisted suicide. One defense attorney had earlier filed a motion for prosecutor misconduct, after a colleague of Thompson’s likened Kevorkian to the Nazis.
“We’re dealing with a state where a majority of the public supports the concept of physician-assisted suicide, and is able to overlook the things that so trouble the rest of the nation,” Thompson said.
Previous Globe coverage on the six-year-old Kevorkian controversy, an on-line poll on the subject of euthanasia and links to related sites and resources are available on Globe Online at http://www.boston.com.
Record Number: 9608200182
Copyright 1996, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company