Final Exit Network requests dismissal of felonies

An assisted suicide group has filed a motion to dismiss felony charges Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom brought against it and its members for the May 30, 2007, suicide of an Apple Valley woman.

If the court does not dismiss the charges against Final Exit Network and its members, an appellate court review has been requested, which could lead to a change of Minnesota’s assisted suicide laws.

Doreen Nan (Gunderson) Dunn, 57, suffered intense chronic pain and depression when she killed herself using a helium hood, according to Backstrom and Robert Rivas, attorney for Final Exit Network, an organization Dunn had joined before she took her life using its recommended method.

In May, a Dakota County grand jury indicted Final Exit Network and four of its volunteers for allegedly violating Minnesota laws against assisting, aiding, advising or encouraging Dunn’s suicide, allowing Backstrom to file felony charges of assisting/aiding abetting another to commit suicide.

Backstrom also charged members with interference with a death scene, gross misdemeanors that Rivas did not challenge in the motion.

Charged were 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.

Rivas argued in his motion to dismiss the assisted suicide charges, on the basis of unconstitutionality because they violate the First Amendment right to free speech by regulating the content of speech.

He cited laws in other states that prohibit assisting in a suicide, but do not include “advising” and “encouraging,” which Rivas said are beyond Minnesota’s police powers.

Rivas stated Final Exit Network “Exit Guides” do not advise anyone in favor of suicide or assist in the suicide, but provide people with information of how to “die peacefully and with certainty if they decide to do so.”

Backstrom refused comment on Rivas’ motion, but has said in the past that Minnesota law prohibits anyone from aiding another person in committing suicide, and doing so is a felony.

“Final Exit Network claims laws of this nature are unconstitutional,” Backstrom has said. “However, the laws enacted by the Minnesota Legislature are presumed to be constitutional until such time as the appellate courts of our state rule otherwise.”

Final Exit Network’s website states it is the only organization in the country that will help individuals who are not terminally ill, and calls it a basic human right for a person to end their life when they suffer from fatal, irreversible illness or intractable pain and have no hope of recovery.

In his motion, Rivas argued that 37 states criminalize aiding or assisting in suicide because the preservation of human life is “a compelling state interest,” wording that does not violate the Constitution, but he called Minnesota’s law “irrational” and overly broad because makes it a crime to “advise” or “encourage” suicide.

He suggested that Minnesota’s law be changed to reflect that of other states like Arizona, which he said states a person commits manslaughter by intentionally aiding another to commit suicide.

“FEN’s volunteers were once charged with this crime in Arizona and made no First Amendment facial challenge to the Arizona law,” Rivas wrote.

In Georgia this year, the Supreme Court declared its statute unconstitutional after Final Exit Network challenged their law that prevented advertising assisted suicide services.

The law was changed to ban assisting in a suicide, specifying “the act of physically helping or physically providing the means” for a suicide.

“Minnesota’s law in this case cannot pass a First Amendment smell test,” Rivas said. “Because it creates a whole category of crime that is made a crime even in the absence of any sanctionable ‘conduct’ at all, and because it involves a ban on the expression of a specific viewpoint that Minnesota seeks to suppress.”

Backstrom has until Dec. 4 to file a response to the FEN motion.