Right-to-Die Group Claims Initial Victory in Minnesota
A Minnesota judge has ruled that part of the state’s law against assisted suicide is unconstitutional, in a ruling that could bolster right-to-die advocates’ efforts to overturn it.
Judge Karen Asphaug made the decision in striking charges on March 22 against Thomas Goodwin, the former head of the Final Exit Network, a right-to-die group that has been accused of illegally assisting in the death of a 57-year-old woman suffering from chronic pain.
It’s a felony in Minnesota to intentionally “assist, advise or encourage” suicide. Asphaug ruled that “advising” infringed on Goodwin’s right to free speech, since there was no evidence to directly implicate him in the woman’s death, and was therefore unconstitutional. The judge also struck down an assisted suicide charge and a charge for interfering with a death scene against one member, Roberta Massey.
The ruling allowed the rest of the case to proceed against several other network members, as well as the network itself.
Profiled in last November’s FRONTLINE film The Suicide Plan, the Final Exit Network is comprised of volunteers, many of them older, who help people take their lives. They call themselves “exit guides,” and they offer to be present when people kill themselves.
The network says its members are trained not to “assist” with the death, meaning they cannot help purchase the materials used in the suicide, or actively help the person to die.
The Final Exit Network is controversial within the right-to-die movement, because unlike other groups, it believes that the people they help don’t have to be terminally ill.
Network volunteers say they don’t violate the law. Prosecutors don’t always agree, but the Final Exit Network has defeated charges of illegally aiding a suicide in Arizona in 2011, and in Georgia, where the state supreme court ruled in February 2012 that Georgia’s law against assisted suicide was unconstitutional. The Minnesota case, which began with indictments in May 2012, is the latest challenge to the network’s efforts.
In the Minnesota case, Doreen Dunn had suffered for years with chronic pain from a medical procedure and had become deeply depressed. In May 2007, her husband came home to find her body lying on the sofa. Medical examiners ruled that Dunn died of natural causes.
But two years later, Georgia authorities investigating the Final Exit Network in their state found documents suggesting that Dunn had consulted with the network before she died. Minnesota police reopened the case, and charged the network, Goodwin and three others with assisting her death.
Robert Rivas, general counsel for Final Exit Network, acknowledges that Dunn had contacted the network, but said that, consistent with its policy, she was never encouraged to take her life. “She received support services and information. She consulted with exit guides,” he said. But Rivas said the network wouldn’t say whether any exit guides were present when she died. “The state’s got to prove that, and I don’t think they have any evidence of it,” he said.
The Final Exit Network and the two remaining defendants still face serious charges:
- Lawrence Egbert, 84, who worked as Final Exit Network’s medical director, reviewed applications from people wishing to end their lives. Prosecutors say Egbert flew to Minnesota the day Dunn died. Egbert has been charged with two felony counts of assisting in a suicide, and two misdemeanors counts of interfering with a death scene.
- Roberta Massey, 66, was a case coordinator, prosecutors say, and had contact with Dunn on the phone. One count of assisting with a suicide and another of interfering with a death scene was dropped against her last week, but she still faces one felony count of aiding others to assist in a suicide.
A third defendant in the case, Jerry Dincin, faced the same charges as Egbert. Today, the network announced that he had died of cancer, at age 82.
Rivas said he believed the latest ruling “gutted” the case against them. “I don’t see how the state could possibly prevail,” he said.
In a statement defending the decision to bring charges last year, prosecutor James Backstrom said the case was not a “politically motivated attack on the right-to-die movement,” but an effort to enforce the law.
“If the people of our state wish to authorize assisted suicide, this should be done through clearly defined laws enacted by the Minnesota Legislature with proper restrictions and requirements to insure the protection of a terminally ill patient and the direct involvement of the patient’s physician and immediate family,” the statement said.
Minnesota’s supreme court may make that decision first. It’s currently considering a separate case challenging the assisted-suicide ban. Rivas said he hopes the network’s recent legal victory will help that case.
A spokeswoman for the Dakota County attorney’s office said the prosecutor was still deciding how to proceed given the ruling.
[Update: In a statement, Backstrom said: “We are pleased that the Judge has found probable cause for most of the counts in the indictment against Final Exit Network and several of its members. In reference to the constitutionality of the statute, we are reviewing the Judge’s ruling to determine how we will proceed.”]