Nearly eight years after an Apple Valley woman killed herself after seeking the services of a national right-to-die group, a Dakota County jury handed the Final Exit Network Inc. its first felony conviction for assisting a suicide.
The jury found the corporation guilty Thursday of criminal charges of assisting Doreen Dunn’s 2007 suicide and interfering with the death scene. Jurors deliberated just 90 minutes between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning before reaching the decision.
“What Final Exit Network does in aiding vulnerable individuals who suffer from serious illness — but who are not terminally ill, like Doreen Dunn — in taking their own lives is simply unacceptable,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said. “It’s morally wrong and [the] jury’s verdict tells us it is legally wrong.”
The corporation faces up to $33,000 in fines for the two felony convictions. A judge will determine how much the group must pay at a sentencing hearing Aug. 24.
After the verdict, Robert Rivas, an attorney for the group, said “there’s no question” that he would file an appeal. Rivas said there was no evidence of assistance, only evidence of advising and encouraging a suicide. Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the state’s law forbidding “advising or encouraging” suicide was unconstitutional, but maintained it is illegal to assist physically or by use of speech.
“[The right-to-die] movement is a broad church, and Final Exit Network is a small though very significant part of it. I do not believe [Thursday’s verdict] will stall our work or set our work back,” Final Exit Network President Wendell Stephenson said Thursday.
The Dakota County trial is the latest chapter in an investigation that began in 2009 when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) arrested four Final Exit Network members in a sting operation. The GBI contacted Minnesota authorities, among others around the country, to share evidence that residents in those places had applied for Final Exit Network services.
The Georgia case ended without any convictions when the state’s Supreme Court struck down its assisted suicide law in 2012. A 2011 Arizona case produced criminal convictions of lesser offenses. Citing documents linking Dunn to the Final Exit Network in the months before her death, Backstrom filed criminal charges against the group and four of its members in 2012.
Supporters of Final Exit Network filled the courtroom throughout the three-day trial. Right-To-Die Minnesota founder James Park, who has written manuals advising groups to adopt practices to make sure they’re within the law, also followed the case.
“This could be a significant turning point in the right-to-die movement,” Park said, referring to the need for more caution when consulting with people who wish to end their lives.
Final Exit Network made minor changes to its policies after the 2009 Georgia investigation, including training on interacting with law enforcement and assessing the relationship between those requesting services and their families.
In closing arguments Wednesday, Phil Prokopowicz, chief deputy in the Dakota County attorney’s office, said Final Exit Network gave Dunn, 57, the “blueprint” for ending her life and made efforts to conceal her suicide from family and authorities by removing the equipment she used.
“Final Exit Network goes beyond simply advocating a person’s right to choose,” he said.
Dunn made her “exit request” in January 2007, writing that she was “living with unbearable, excruciating” pain for 10 years after a medical procedure.
Dunn’s application was approved the next month, and she committed suicide by helium asphyxiation on May 30, 2007.
Her husband, Mark Dunn, testified during the trial that he did not approve of assisted suicide.
Backstrom said he will continue prosecuting cases against Final Exit Network case coordinator Roberta Massey, 69, of Bear, Del., and the group’s medical director, Lawrence Egbert, 87, of Baltimore.
Another defendant, Jerry Dincin, died and charges against former President Thomas Goodwin were dropped in 2013.