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IN KEVORKIAN TALE, A QUESTION OF TIMING

On Sunday morning, ABC's Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts were discussing the "60 Minutes" report a week earlier on CBS that showed Dr. Jack Kevorkian fatally injecting a patient with drugs that ended his horrific battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Donaldson said he was "torn" over the issue, asking, "What is wrong with making an informed decision?" in such circumstances.

Roberts seemed more concerned that the case would have a chilling effect on regular doctors who try to make their fatally ill patients more comfortable in their final days by administering drugs that lessen their pain but may ultimately lead to their death.

But the most interesting comment came from Michigan prosecutor David Gorcyca, who will put Kevorkian on trial on charges of murdering 52-year-old Thomas Youk.

A good-looking, reasonable man, Gorcyca sounded a little like Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr did on Wednesday when he was interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer about the Clinton impeachment proceedings.

Like Starr, Gorcyca realizes that the law is on his side, even if the public might not be. He knows that any jury member's life experiences will play a role in the verdict.

It is clear from the debate on a rival network that CBS' Mike Wallace was right last week when he told a PBS interviewer that the debate would quickly shift from the journalism of "60 Minutes" to one about the merits and drawbacks of euthanasia.

If I put my old-journalism hat on, I'd chastise "60 Minutes" for running the 2-month-old tape, which shows Kevorkian administering the fatal drugs to a patient who desperately wants to end his suffering.

In a legendary old quote, TV producer Gary David Goldberg speculated that Fox would be the network to air a live, naked execution in prime time for ratings.

But CBS? The network clearly erred in running it during the final sweeps Sunday of the month, which fueled the idea that it was exploiting the case. It could have avoided some criticism just by moving the segment back a week. And we really didn't need to see the clinical way the man was put to death.

But putting on my new-journalism hat, I have to give the old guard like Wallace and producer Don Hewitt credit for adjusting to the times.

In a voyeuristic world in which even the president's grand jury testimony can eventually hit prime time, there's no doubt that the tape would have surfaced somewhere. If it wasn't "60 Minutes," it would have landed on "Geraldo" or Fox, which would may have cheapened the debate by pairing it with an "Animals Attack" special on Thursday night.

The tape itself was eerie, but hardly emotional. I had watched Jimmy Smits' farewell as Bobby Simone on "NYPD Blue" two nights before this tape ran and unabashedly bawled my eyes out.

It seemed odd to cry more for a fictional character I've come to know for four years than a human being viewers got to know only for a few minutes.

Viewers couldn't see Youk's face at the time of the injection or hear anything but the voice of Kevorkian routinely explain what he was doing.

The most bizarre moment came when Wallace -- watching later with Kevorkian -- asked, "Is he dead now?"

The veteran correspondent wasn't at the top of his interview game. He asked some tough questions, but he didn't follow up as passionately as usual considering the forum that he was giving Kevorkian.

One disappointed observer was Dr. Robert Milch, the medical director of Hospice Buffalo. Milch also is the brother of "NYPD Blue" writer David Milch and advised his brother on the scripting of Simone's case and dying moments.

"I would have wanted to have heard Mike Wallace ask the questions he used to be famous for asking," said Robert Milch.

"Was this a hospice patient? Had the patient been assessed for depression? What kind of bereavement services were offered to the family?"

Dr. Milch also had a question of his own.

"Can you imagine Jack Kevorkian being the last face you'll see on this earth? It looks like the face of tragic comedy."

Added Dr. Milch, who disapproves of Kevorkian's actions: "Having seen this less than mediocre reporting, I can't help but wonder if '60 Minutes' -- if it had not been faced with sweeps week (hype) -- might have done a more thoughtful job."

The message that Dr. Milch said this piece delivered was: "I'm afraid of choking to death." "OK, we'll just kill you."

"And that was reprehensible," he concluded.

It will be interesting to see if there are more tapes dealing with Youk which illustrate his pain and suffering and may better explain why he wanted so badly to die and why his family agreed with his decision.

If Kevorkian were more concerned about patients like this than his place in history or his cause, he probably should have avoided this test case. Because terminally ill patients may have more to lose than to gain.

If Kevorkian is convicted and Roberts is right, regular doctors may take less risk in administering painkillers like morphine to the critically ill before they lapse into death.

This case clearly would have been better argued on a fictional television series like "The Practice" or "Chicago Hope" than in a court of law. Because verdicts in TV series that are reached after debate aren't binding.

That said, years of watching television series leads one to the conclusion that Kevorkian has a very good chance of avoiding conviction.

If you've listened to the radio or TV call-in shows since the "60 Minutes" segment aired, you know that there isn't a consensus on this issue. As Gorcyca suggested, people's views are colored by life's experiences with fatally ill family members.

If Youk's family is allowed to testify that the doctor is a hero to them, there likely will be at least one jury member who won't be able to convict. Under this thinking, the worst-case scenario for Kevorkian will be a hung jury.

And a TV director would know how to conclude the entire episode -- by freeze-framing a shot of a relieved prosecutor.

A week after Simone's death, Rick Schroder comes on board "NYPD Blue" (10 tonight, Channel 7) as Danny Sorenson and deals with the squad's initial reluctance to accept him.

Any suspicions that Schroder will be an unacceptable substitute for Smits are quickly dispelled as Schroder delivers a strong performance as a detective doing the best job he can in a tough situation. He holds his own in powerful scenes with Kim Delaney as Simone's widow, Diane Russell, and Dennis Franz as Simone's partner, Andy Sipowicz.

Sorenson also has to deal with a number of cracks about how he looks about age 14. And of course, there is the inevitable line that Sorenson "is no Bobby Simone."

That's true. But this veteran cop/younger cop partnership could just be what the series needs. Judging by the premiere, Schroder may pass for 21 before this show will have to leave the air.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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