At heart of Final Exit debate is Minnesota law against promoting suicide vs. the freedom of speech.
The fight over which charges — if any — can be pressed against Final Exit Network and two of its members in connection with the 2007 suicide of an Apple Valley woman is headed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The high court agreed last week to hear Dakota County prosecutors’ appeal of an Appeals Court ruling in October that said that the Minnesota law that prohibits advising or encouraging suicide is unconstitutional. The Appeals Court ruling, however, did not dismiss charges of aiding and abetting suicide against the Florida-based group and members Lawrence Egbert and Roberta Massey.
In an order dated Dec. 17, the Supreme Court also agreed to hear the cross-appeal of Final Exit Network that all of the charges are unconstitutional and, thus, invalid.
In an additional order, all proceedings in the case were stayed pending a ruling in the case of William Melchert-Dinkel of Faribault, an ex-nurse who was convicted in 2011 of “advising and encouraging” the suicides of a man in England and a teenager in Canada. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction last year. Oral arguments before the state Supreme Court were held in May. On average, Supreme Court rulings take about 4½ months.
Robert Rivas, an attorney for Final Exit, said the group initially opposed the high court’s review of the case. In its submission, it said only that it believes the Appeals Court decision was correct.
“It’s been a very confusing path we’ve been down,” Rivas said Thursday. “But I’m glad the Supreme Court is going to make the final decision. I think that the Court of Appeals decision is going to be affirmed. It’ll be good to have it affirmed by an even higher court.”
The group says it provides information to those who have chronic and incurable conditions and want to end their lives. Once a person is deemed to have met the group’s requirements — including being mentally competent — the group offers an “exit guide” and makes available volunteers who will attend a suicide, but not assist in one, if requested. The group insists it’s within the law because it provides information but does not physically participate in suicides or provide equipment.
Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said in a written statement that he is glad the high court granted review of the case.
“We continue to believe that the acts of aiding, advising and encouraging someone to take their own life should be prohibited and subject to prosecution under Minnesota law,” he said.
The Dakota County case is the third time in recent years that prosecutors have gone after the group, including cases in Arizona and Georgia. The Georgia case was thrown out after that state’s Supreme Court ruled that its law prohibiting assisted suicide was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The defendants were acquitted of charges of assisting a suicide in the Arizona case.
Free speech question
Charges against Final Exit and four of its members were first brought in Minnesota in May 2012, about five years after Doreen Dunn, 57, used helium and a plastic bag to end her life.
Dunn had made 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.” Two Final Exit members were with her the day of her death, but Rivas said in 2012 that he didn’t know if they were with her when she died.
Dakota County District Judge Karen Asphaug dismissed charges against the group’s leader, Thomas “Ted” Goodwin, in March, saying there was no evidence he met or talked to Dunn. Another defendant, Jerry Dincin, later died.
Egbert, Massey and Final Exit asked Asphaug to dismiss the charges against them; she decline, and the case went to the state Court of Appeals.
In October, the Appeals Court ruled that the statute that bars advising or encouraging suicide violates the U.S. Constitution’s protections on free speech. In an 18-page ruling, the court’s three-judge panel said that the law “chills a significant amount of protected speech that does not bear a necessary relationship” to the goal of preventing suicide.
The Appeals Court remanded the remaining charges of aiding and abetting suicide to the district court for trial. Prosecutors then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Maybe one more stop?
Rivas said Thursday that he wouldn’t be surprised if the case eventually goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“To me, this has all the earmarks that the Supreme Court of the United States takes really seriously,” he said, noting that he believes there would be “a pretty high likelihood” that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear it.
“From my point of view, there are six other states that have unconstitutional rules like the state of Minnesota,” Rivas said. “To have the U.S. Supreme Court rule [for Final Exit] would invalidate all of them. I would be very happy about that.”
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284