Grand jury indictment stirs assisted suicide debate
Neighbor reached out to Dunn before her death
Until the pain, Doreen Dunn was a traveler, quilter and master gardener, said Julie Tussing, a neighbor who helped care for Dunn at her Apple Valley home before the 57-year-old woman’s apparent suicide.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom released on Monday a May 11 grand jury indictment of 17 counts against Final Exit Network and four of the nonprofit right-to-die organization’s volunteers for their alleged role in Dunn’s May 30, 2007, death.
Cited in the indictment are nine felonies of assisting another to commit suicide and eight gross misdemeanor charges of interfering with a death scene.
Charged are Final Exit Network, a 501c3 nonprofit; Thomas “Ted” Goodwin, former president of Final Exit Network; Roberta Massey, a Final Exit “case coordinator;” Jerry Dincin, then-Final Exit Network president; and the organization’s medical director Dr. Lawrence Egbert.
Backstrom alleges Dunn committed suicide using a hood and inhaling helium gas after consulting with members of Final Exit Network without her family’s knowledge, and that Dincin and Egbert were present in Dunn’s residence when she took her life.
Backstrom said materials allegedly used by Dunn and items referencing Final Exit Network were removed from the scene, as outlined in the organization’s training manuals.
Robert Rivas, attorney for Final Exit Network, has argued volunteers do not physically assist a person committing suicide, but provide information that is constitutionally protected free speech.
He told Sun Thisweek he intends to file to have the case dismissed.
Tussing and Dunn were never close friends but raised their families in the same neighborhood for over 20 years.
Knowing Dunn was in chronic pain following surgeries, Tussing one day brought Dunn a flower and a card.
“It said ‘Thinking of you,’ ” Tussing said. “She just grabbed on to that, because she knew somebody cared.”
The years of chronic pain had taken a toll on some relationships, including Dunn’s marriage, Tussing said, and family members appeared unsure of what to do to for her.
For the last few years of Dunn’s life, Tussing would give her rides to appointments, shop for her groceries and help with her care.
According to Tussing, Dunn suffered from insomnia, frequently took headache medicine and was depressed.
She said the former musician who spoke with pride about her children grew to complain more frequently as she suffered constant “excruciating pain” set off by even the slightest touch.
“She just became unbearable at times. … She was always appropriate with me, but you could tell she was under a lot of stress,” Tussing said.
After Dunn’s body was discovered, and the coroner ruled she died of natural causes, Tussing said she felt “sort of relieved” for Dunn because she was no longer suffering.
When Tussing learned evidence uncovered in a Georgia investigation indicated Dunn had contacted Final Exit Network apparently seeking to end her life, Tussing said she was not surprised, considering all she knew about Dunn’s situation.
She said Dunn had spoken to her about her suffering.
“She let me know she just couldn’t take it anymore,” Tussing said.
Having witnessed Dunn’s situation and knowing others who struggle with depression and pain, Tussing said she believes people should be legally allowed to end their suffering.
“I agree with the right-to-die,” Tussing said. “It’s unfortunate that in Minnesota, we don’t have that option.”
In an interview, Backstrom said he has “great compassion” for those suffering from serious pain, illness or disease, but noted Minnesota law does not allow for assisted suicide.
“Until such time as the Minnesota Legislature chooses to enact legislation allowing assisted suicides in cases of terminal illness or irreversible medical conditions that adversely impact a person to the extent that their quality of life is unacceptable to them, aiding, encouraging or assisting someone suffering from any condition to kill themselves is against the law in Minnesota.”
Oregon is the only state with laws that allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients under the 1998 “Death with Dignity Act.”
Gordie Haug, a representative for ADAPT Minnesota, a disability-rights organization, told Sun Thisweek he has concerns about a society that condones suicide.
He said when discussions were occurring about legalizing assisted suicide of the terminally ill, it was proclaimed a slippery slope that would lead to ending the lives of those who are not terminal, as in Dunn’s case.
“I oppose any policies and practices that threaten the lives of persons with disabilities,” Haug said, adding that he works with many disabled people suffering from depression.
Haug said there are treatments and options to ease pain and effectively treat depression, but with Medicaid cuts and tight budgets, Haug worried people may decide it is cheaper to take a life than to preserve one.
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s right to take their life,” he said.
The Final Exit Network volunteers will have to travel to Minnesota for trial, as they have in other states where prosecutions have occurred.
Last year in Arizona, a jury found Final Exit Network’s medical director not guilty of conspiring to assist in a suicide.
The jury was deadlocked in the case of an exit guide accused of assisting and conspiring to assist in the same suicide.
Two other volunteers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
Laura Adelmann is at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/sunthisweek.