When jury selection begins Monday in the trial of a national right-to-die group accused of helping an Apple Valley woman kill herself, much will have changed since Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom first filed charges three years ago.
Just one of the four people originally charged will be in the courtroom. Meanwhile, the case that prosecutors can present will be limited in scope by a series of rulings issued as the case worked its way through the court system.
Since Backstrom charged Final Exit Network Inc., a Georgia nonprofit, and four affiliates with assisting the 2007 suicide of 57-year-old Doreen Dunn, charges were dropped against one member, another died, and the trial of a third was suspended because of her poor health. Left to stand trial is the corporation itself and Lawrence Egbert, an 87-year-old Baltimore man who served as the group’s medical director.
Dunn reached out to the Final Exit Network after 10 years of chronic pain related to a medical procedure. When her family found her dead in her home in May 2007, both police and a medical examiner believed she died of natural causes.
But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation shared evidence with Apple Valley police in 2009 that Dunn sought the Final Exit Network’s consultation in ending her life.
Jury selection in Dakota County District Court is expected to take most of the week and the trial itself another two weeks. The case picks up nearly a year after the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by prosecutors, who challenged a state Court of Appeals ruling that a law against advising or encouraging one’s suicide violated free speech rights.
Now, prosecutors can allege only that the Final Exit Network and Egbert directly assisted in Dunn’s suicide, which could include physical help or the use of speech. The Final Exit Network and Egbert also face charges of aiding and abetting assisted suicide; interference with a dead body, and aiding and abetting interference with a dead body. Roberta Massey, 69, of Bear, Del., is still charged with aiding and abetting assisted suicide, but a judge suspended her involvement because of poor health and a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing will determine if she ever goes to trial.
Dakota County District Judge Christian Wilton also ruled last month that the prosecution cannot characterize Dunn’s illness as terminal or near-terminal nor can it introduce evidence of Dunn’s clinical depression. Robert Rivas, the Final Exit Network’s attorney, argued that such evidence would be a technique to elicit sympathy from jurors.
“The state is really reaching to try to find ways to get a conviction,” Rivas said. “It’s one of those things that have absolutely nothing to do with whether a crime was committed under Minnesota law.”
Backstrom will not comment further on the case until a verdict is reached, according to a spokeswoman.
When an applicant meets the Final Exit Network’s criteria — which includes being mentally competent and suffering from “intolerable medical circumstances” like cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease — the network assigns volunteer “Exit Guides” who provide information on ending one’s own life.
The network’s preferred method is helium asphyxiation using a plastic bag as a mask. Often, two Final Exit Network members are present and remove items the person used to take their life.
Rivas said that though Egbert and Jerry Dincin, 83, of Highland Park, Ill., were with Dunn the day of her death, there is no evidence that anyone was in the room with her when she died. Dincin died in 2013. Also that year, a judge dismissed charges against Thomas Goodwin, 68, of Punta Gorda, Fla.
So far, no Final Exit Network associate has been convicted of assisting a suicide. A Georgia case was thrown out in 2012 after the state’s Supreme Court struck down its assisted suicide law, and a subsequent Arizona case only produced lesser convictions. Late last year, Egbert’s medical license was revoked in Maryland for allegedly assisting six suicides on behalf of the Final Exit Network.
The organization’s president, Wendell Stephenson, said that because it is not illegal for someone to end their own life and because the nonprofit doesn’t provide the means for suicide, his nonprofit violates no law.
“We clearly ought to not be found guilty because we do not assist in suicide,” Stephenson said. “It is surprising to us that prosecutors come after us.”