The Minnesota law that bars advising or encouraging suicide violates the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech protections, the state Court of Appeals ruled Monday in an unpublished opinion involving a Florida group called Final Exit Network Inc.
The ruling invalidates charges against two Final Exit members of advising and encouraging suicide in the 2007 death of an Apple Valley woman, but let stand charges that they aided and abetted in her death.
Still, Final Exit lawyer Robert Rivas called Monday’s ruling a “grand slam” for his clients. It comes at a time when another case involving a Faribault man convicted of assisting suicide via the Internet is likely to go before the state Supreme Court.
In its 18-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the Appeals Court said that the law against encouraging suicide “chills a significant amount of protected speech that does not bear a necessary relationship” to the state’s goal of preventing suicide.
In a footnote, the court said the term “encourages” in the law “plausibly encompasses urging” suicide, but it is “not necessarily” the same as causing someone to commit suicide through “undue influence or distress.” The latter probably would not be protected speech, the court said.
The court remanded the case, meaning that it sent a portion back to Dakota County District Court. It ruled that the aiding-and-abetting charges could stand because Final Exit went beyond advising to assisting. Thus, a trial of the Final Exit members on the remaining charges could proceed, but Rivas said he expects Dakota County prosecutors to appeal Monday’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.
County Attorney James Backstrom’s office didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday.
The state Supreme Court is not required to hear the Final Exit case, but the case involving a Faribault man convicted of assisting two suicides is pending before it. In that case, which involves the same set of state laws about assisted suicide, William Melchert-Dinkel, an ex-nurse, was convicted in 2011 of “advising and encouraging” the suicides of a man in England and a teenager in Canada. The Court of Appeals determined last year that Melchert-Dinkel’s speech wasn’t protected because he was engaging in predatory behavior by going into chat rooms and making suicide “pacts” with vulnerable strangers.
5 years after death, charges
The charges in the latest case stem from the alleged involvement of Final Exit members Lawrence Egbert and Roberta Massey, who are “exit guides,” in the May 2007 death of 57-year-old Doreen Dunn. Guides are assigned to develop a relationship with a member and to provide information about helium asphyxiation, Final Exit’s “preferred method of hastening death,” the court said.
Dunn, who had been living with chronic pain for more than a decade because of various ailments, discussed suicide with her husband, who opposed it, the court ruling said.
There was no sign of suicide in her home, where she died, and an autopsy listed her cause of death as atherosclerotic coronary artery disease, the court said.
But law enforcement eventually received information linking Final Exit to her death. She had become a member in early 2007 and had regular contact with the group. Flight records also indicated that Egbert and Jerry Dincin, another guide, made round-trip flights to Minnesota from their home states of Maryland and Illinois on the day Dunn died.
Five years after her death, a grand jury charged Egbert and Final Exit with advising and encouraging suicide and interfering with a body or death scene, along with aiding and abetting those actions. Massey was charged with aiding and abetting the suicide. Dincin was charged as well, but has since died.
Egbert, Massey and Final Exit sought to have the charges dismissed, but Dakota County District Judge Karen Asphaug declined.
Rivas doesn’t expect the Final Exit members to face criminal trial. “The state can’t prove there was any assisting,” Rivas said, adding that the evidence mentioned in the ruling wouldn’t be admissible in a trial.
Another case looms
Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman wrote the ruling for the court. Judges Terri Stoneburner and Randolph Peterson also signed it.
Like the vast majority of Appeals Court rulings, this one was unpublished, which means it doesn’t set precedent, meaning the lower courts aren’t bound to follow it. But Peter Knapp, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said the opinion can be used as “persuasive authority,” meaning lawyers could point to the ruling when arguing a similar issue.
Knapp said it’s possible that the Appeals Court was aware of the pending Melchert- Dinkel case, where a ruling could be definitive on the issue. He also said the higher court could delay further action on the Final Exit case pending the outcome of the other case.