It wasn't exactly a vindication for the Final Exit Network, a right-to-die group that helped a 57-year-old Apple Valley woman kill herself in May 2007 after more than a decade of chronic and debilitating pain.
But the widely watched case took another step forward late Friday when Dakota County District Judge Karen Asphaug dismissed all charges against a Florida man, Thomas (Ted) Goodwin. Goodwin, along with four other defendants, had been charged with aiding and abetting assisted suicide, a felony, as well as aiding and abetting interference with a death scene, a gross misdemeanor, in connection with the death of Doreen Dunn.
The group and two members, Dr. Larry Egbert, of Baltimore, and Jerry Dincin, of Highland Park, Ill., still face the same aiding-suicide and interference charges. Another volunteer, Roberta Massey, of Bear, Del., who apparently had several phone conversations with Dunn, is charged with aiding and abetting an assisted suicide. A charge of assisting suicide against Massey was dismissed Friday.
There's no evidence that Goodwin, of Punta Gorda, Fla., ever met Dunn, although he was president of Final Exit Network at the time of her death and a copy of her membership application was found in his business records. He also appeared in a training video that showed him explaining to a member how to commit suicide with helium and a plastic bag and how he would hold the person's hands once they lost consciousness so they couldn't rip the bag.
"I just spoke to Mr. Goodwin … he feels vindicated after enduring this long process," attorney John Lundquist said Friday night. "We applaud Judge Asphaug's very scholarly analysis of the issues."
Dunn contacted the group to make an "exit request" in January 2007, writing in a letter that she was "living with unbearable excruciating chronic pain that has spread throughout my whole body since 12/96."
Toward the end of the handwritten letter, signed Doreen Gunderson Dunn, she said, "Have fought the good fight for 10 yr. to try to get better but it is futile and without an exit will be left in some nursing home in unbearable pain for who knows how many years."
She also submitted a note from her doctor, released in part by the group last year, that confirmed she was completely disabled and suffered from multiple painful conditions.
Dunn used helium and a plastic bag to kill herself in her home on May 30, 2007. Egbert and Dincin were with her, and apparently removed all signs of the suicide from her house.
A coroner initially ruled that Dunn had died from coronary artery disease. Dakota County's investigation began after a highly publicized but unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors in Georgia to go after Final Exit Network and its members.
Last May, a Dakota County grand jury indicted the group as well as the three defendants and one former defendant.
State law defines the crime of assisted suicide as "whoever intentionally advises, encourages or assists another in taking the other's own life."
In her ruling Friday, Asphaug said there was insufficient probable cause to sustain the charges against Goodwin.
"Mr. Goodwin is not alleged to have been present when the crimes were committed," the judge wrote. Although the court found enough evidence to support the interference with a dead body charges against Dincin and Egbert, "this evidence does not establish any connection whatsoever to Mr. Goodwin."
Confusion from ruling
There was some confusion Friday night between prosecutors and defense attorneys about whether the judge had dismissed the aiding-suicide charges against all the defendants on the basis that parts of the state law are unconstitutional. The Dakota County attorney's office said the felony charges were not dismissed against Final Exit Network and Dincin and Egbert.
But Lundquist, Goodwin's attorney, pointed to language in the judge's orders saying, "The 'advises' language [of the law] is unconstitutional because this portion of the statute is overbroad" and "The 'encourages' language … is constitutional under a narrow construction of the word."
The ruling does say, however, that the law is unconstitutional as applied to Goodwin but constitutional as applied to Egbert, Dincin and Final Exit.
In a written statement, County Attorney Jim Backstrom said, "In reference to the constitutionality of the statute, we are reviewing the judge's ruling to determine how we will proceed."