A national right-to-die group is headed for a court battle in Dakota County after investigators pieced together evidence linking it to an Apple Valley woman's suicide nearly five years ago.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom announced Monday that a local grand jury had indicted the Final Exit Network and four of its members on 17 counts of assisting a suicide and interfering with a death scene.
The network faces four counts, two of them felonies. Altogether, the grand jury returned indictments on nine felonies related to assisting in a suicide and eight gross misdemeanors for interference in a death scene.
"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 ensure the protection of a terminally ill patient and the direct involvement of the patient's physician and immediate family," Backstrom said during a news conference at the county law enforcement center in Hastings.
Lawyers for the network and one of the defendants vowed vigorous defenses, starting with a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the Minnesota law prohibiting assistance of a suicide is overly broad and violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
Doreen Dunn, who was 57 when she died, had suffered chronic pain, stemming from a medical procedure, for more than 10 years when she contacted the Final Exit Network. After becoming a member and obtaining an "exit guide" from the group, she apparently killed herself with helium and a plastic bag at her Apple Valley home.
The medical examiner at the time ruled that Dunn had died of coronary artery disease.
Apple Valley police reopened an investigation of Dunn's death after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation passed along evidence it had seized while pursuing a case against the Final Exit Network.
Dr. Lawrence Egbert of Baltimore, who was the network's medical director when the suicide took place, and Jerry Dincin of Highland Park, Ill., an "exit guide" who worked on Dunn's case, each face four counts, including two felonies apiece; Roberta Massey of Delaware was indicted on three counts, including two felonies; and Thomas Goodwin of Atlanta and Punta Gorda, Fla., faces two counts, one of which is a felony.
Investigators believe, based on documents collected from Georgia, that Dincin and Egbert were at Dunn's home on the day she killed herself -- May 30, 2007 -- and then removed any evidence of suicide, disposing of it in a Dumpster somewhere between Apple Valley and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Robert Rivas, a Florida-based attorney for the network, said that the group and its members do not encourage or physically participate in a suicide. Rather, he said, they offer information about methods and emotional support to those who want to end their lives because of chronic medical conditions.
"All the defendants are not guilty," said Rivas, who accuses Backstrom of pursuing the case for political reasons.
This is the third time in recent years that prosecutors have gone after the group. A case in Georgia was thrown out after that state's supreme court ruled the Georgia law prohibiting assisted suicide was unconstitutional. In Arizona, a jury acquitted Egbert and other defendants pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
At the news conference Monday, Backstrom denied that he was pursuing the case for political reasons and said Dunn's family supports the investigation. They did not know she had committed suicide until Apple Valley police came to the door in spring 2010 with the new information from Georgia.
"It is easy to imagine how disturbing such an occurrence would be," Backstrom said. "And this family's trauma continues to this day as this investigation and now prosecution of those charged in aiding in, and covering up, Doreen Dunn's death is yet to be completed."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286