Right-to-die group convicted of assisting in Minnesota suicide
By Staff and wire reports
May 14, 2015 | 6:48 PM
The national right-to-die group Final Exit Network was convicted Thursday of assisting in the suicide of a Minnesota woman, after a Baltimore doctor who helped lead the organization and was present for the woman's death testified against the group.
Jurors, who deliberated for about 90 minutes, also found the group guilty of interfering with a death scene. The group faces a maximum fine of $33,000. Sentencing was set for August.
It was the first time Final Exit Network has been convicted for its actions. The group says it advises and supports those who want to kill themselves. A lawyer said the group would appeal the conviction.
Minnesota became the third state to charge Final Exit Network or its members with wrongdoing when it prosecuted the group in the death of Doreen Dunn, 57, of Apple Valley, Minn. Dunn lived with intense pain for more than a decade after a reaction to a medical procedure.
Dr. Lawrence Egbert, an 87-year-old Hampden man who was once Final Exit Network's medical director, was granted immunity for his testimony in the trial.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Dunn didn't know how to take her life until agents of Final Exit Network provided her with a "blueprint" to do so.
"They go beyond simply advocating a person's right to choose," Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz told jurors during closing arguments. "This is an organization that directly connects to its members and provides them with the knowledge and means to take their own life. And in the state of Minnesota, that is where the line is crossed."
Defense attorney Robert Rivas said Final Exit Network is careful to stay within constitutionally protected speech, and there was no evidence that it did anything illegal.
He said the group, which is incorporated in Georgia, provides people who choose to end their lives with emotional and philosophical support, and lets them know "they've got a friend."
To convict the group, jurors had to find that agents of Final Exit Network intentionally assisted and enabled Dunn in taking her life.
In Minnesota, that assistance can include physical conduct or speech, provided the speech is aimed at giving a specific person instructions on how to end his or her life. Speech isn't considered assisting if someone is just sharing a viewpoint or providing support.
According to trial testimony, Dunn's husband arrived home on May 30, 2007, to find his wife dead on the couch.
The family and medical examiner initially thought she died from natural causes. But information uncovered during a 2009 investigation in Georgia revealed that Dunn had joined Final Exit Network and that two other members — Jerry Dincin and Egbert — were with her the day she died.
Equipment Dunn used to asphyxiate herself with helium, the group's preferred method of suicide, had been removed from the scene.
Egbert, who said he was offered immunity for his testimony less than two weeks before the trial began, said prosecutors' questions focused on his and Dincin's removal of the hood Dunn wore to contain the helium and whether she was well enough to open the door to her home for the men. Egbert said he told them she had asked them to remove the hood because she didn't want her family to know she had committed suicide.
Final Exit Network founder Thomas Goodwin testified that the group would sometimes provide information on where people could obtain equipment to take their own lives by helium asphyxiation and help them rehearse the act.
He said the group's founders were aware of various assisted-suicide laws and "would push the envelope" but were careful to "stay within the law as we knew it."
An earlier case against four Final Exit Network members in Georgia, including Egbert, was tossed out after that state's Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that its assisted-suicide law was unconstitutional.
Egbert was acquitted of a manslaughter charge in Arizona in 2011; three others pleaded guilty to minor counts that resulted in no jail time, Rivas said.
Maryland prosecutors discussed possible charges against Egbert in 2009, after the Georgia investigation's findings came to light, but none were ever brought. The Maryland Board of Physicians stripped Egbert of his medical license in December for his connection to six deaths in Maryland.
Five states allow patients to seek aid in taking their own lives: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico.
Maryland lawmakers discussed a bill modeled on Washington's "death with dignity" law during this year's legislative session, but leaders of two key committees decided not to vote on it, effectively killing it.