State’s highest court lets guilty verdict in assisted suicide case stand
The Minnesota Supreme Court denied on March 15 a Final Exit Network petition for the court to hear an appeal of the Florida-based nonprofit’s conviction for a felony charge connected to the May 2007 suicide of an Apple Valley woman.
Members of the Supreme Court reviewed a 10-page petition submitted in January by Final Exit attorneys and an eight-page response from Dakota County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, who advocated that the Minnesota Appeals Court was correct when it ruled in May 2015 that Final Exit was guilty of a felony charge of assisting another to commit suicide.
Final Exit claimed the charge was unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s free speech provision.
It claimed its actions of providing information to 57-year-old Doreen Dunn about suicide methods and where to purchase equipment to commit suicide, reviewing her medical history, having a Final Exit medical examiner approve her Final Exit services and having Final Exit officials present in her house prior to her death were protected under free speech.
Dunn reportedly suffered pain for 10 years following a 1996 medical procedure when she joined Final Exit.
Final Exit is not contesting its conviction for gross misdemeanor interference with a dead body or death scene. That charge is based on the facts that a Final Exit medical examiner checked Dunn’s pulse afterward to determine she had died and that members removed equipment that led to the death and disposed of it in a dumpster to create the appearance of a natural death.
The appeals court said Final Exit’s information on its website and other communications with regard to the right-to-die or emotional support are not prohibited, since it is not directed to a specific individual, but the group’s members violated Minnesota law with regard to the preservation of human life when it “assisted” in Dunn’s suicide.
The court found that Final Exit members provided information directly to Dunn, and they came to her house and explained to her procedures that led to her death.
The group said the court established that Final Exit officials did not provide any physical assistance in the death.
Final Exit said in a press release that it would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“No other state in the country makes it a crime to give information about self-deliverance,” said Janis Landis, Final Exit president. “We find the Minnesota law intolerable and wrong, and we will not give up the fight.”
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said prior to the Supreme Court’s review of the petition for appeal that he was confident the conviction will continue to be upheld, since the appeals decision was based on the interpretation of the law in the Supreme Court’s review of the State vs. William Melchert-Dinkel.
In the case, Melchert-Dinkel, a Faribault resident posing as a female nurse, contacted two different people through the Internet and started conversations with them in which he was found to have “assisted” one person in a death by suicide.
After an appeal of his conviction to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the court determined that “assists” means “proscrib(ing) speech or conduct that provides another person with what is needed for the person to commit suicide” or “enabl(ing) the person to commit suicide.”
The case also further found that the speech must be directed to a specific individual and not merely expressing a moral viewpoint or providing general comfort or support.
Melchert-Dinkel served nearly six months in jail after his 2014 conviction and remains on 10 years of probation, according to a Faribault Daily News report of March 2016.
Final Exit was ordered on Aug. 24, 2015, to pay a $30,000 fine and approximately $3,000 in restitution in connection to the Dunn case.
The sentence included a stay of execution of 21 months in prison and 15 years of probation. While a corporate entity cannot be sent to prison, under Minnesota law the prison term establishes that the offense is a felony.
Final Exit was on probation until the fine and restitution was paid, which the group said on its website it would pay immediately.
Every year, 600 to 700 petitions for reviews are filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, and, on average, approximately 10 to 12 percent of those petitions are granted, according to Supreme Court communications officials.
For an appeal to be heard, at least three of the seven justices must agree to grant the petition.