BOSTON – A man serving a life sentence for murdering his wife is asking a federal judge to order the state to pay for a sex-change operation, arguing that denying him the surgery amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
A psychiatrist testified Tuesday that he believes Robert Kosilek — who now goes by Michelle — will commit suicide if state corrections officials refuse to allow the surgery and Kosilek is unable to complete the transformation into a woman.
Kosilek, 57, was convicted of strangling his wife, Cheryl, in 1990.
In 2002, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf ruled Kosilek was entitled to treatment for gender identity disorder, but he stopped short of ordering the state to pay for a sex-change operation.
Since then, Kosilek has received psychotherapy, female hormone treatments and laser hair removal.
Kosilek sued the Department of Correction for the second time last year, saying psychiatrists — including two of the department's experts — had determined a sex-change operation was medically necessary.
"We ask that gender identity disorder be treated like any other medical condition," said Kosilek's attorney, Frances Cohen.
Attorneys on both sides made opening statements Tuesday in a trial expected to last as long as two weeks. Kosilek opted to have the case heard by Wolf instead of a jury.
Neither side gave an estimate on the costs of the operation. Kosilek's attorney told Wolf she believes the corrections department could argue that the surgery should be covered by the department's provider.
Dr. George Richard Brown, a psychiatrist, said Kosilek's depression and anxiety have improved since the hormone treatment began.
If Kosilek does not have a sex-change operation, Brown said, "I believe that she would kill herself."
The department's attorney, Richard McFarland, said Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy decided to deny surgery because of "significant safety and security concerns."
Corrections officials fear Kosilek could be a target for assault by returning as a woman to the all-male, medium-security prison in Norfolk, McFarland said. If Kosilek is transferred to the women's prison in Framingham, there are concerns about risk to female inmates there.
During the 2002 trial, Kosilek testified to having gender identity disorder since age 3, attempting suicide twice and attempting self-castration.
Two psychiatrists will testify that Kosilek functions "at a very high level" and that a sex-change operation is not medically necessary, McFarland said.