Members of a national right-to-die group are challenging Minnesota's assisted-suicide law, saying it violates constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The group Final Exit Network is challenging the law after four of its members were indicted in May in the suicide of a Minnesota woman. Prosecutors say the defendants not only supported Doreen Dunn's decision to kill herself in 2007, but provided her with information and support to follow through.
Final Exit members claim they do not encourage suicide, but that the act of giving information and emotional support could be interpreted as "encouraging" under a Minnesota law that makes it a felony for someone to intentionally assist, advise or encourage suicide.
Defense attorneys who appeared at a hearing Tuesday in Dakota County District Court argued that the statute is unconstitutional.
In documents filed ahead of the hearing, Final Exit Network general counsel Robert Rivas wrote that while the state may bar someone from "assisting" a suicide, it is unconstitutional for the state to ban "advising" or "encouraging" a suicide — pure speech.
Defense attorneys asked Judge Karen Asphaug to dismiss the counts related to the statute.
Prosecutors contend the statute is narrowly worded so advocates of suicide may freely speak their minds but that those who "intentionally" assist, encourage or advise suicide are breaking the law.
Asphaug took the arguments under advisement; it wasn't clear when she might issue a ruling. Rivas said the defendants also asked that if the judge refuses to dismiss the charges, that she give them permission to appeal.
"We put our best foot forward," Rivas said in a telephone interview after Tuesday's hearing. "I'm very hopeful that we will prevail."
The 17-count indictment charges Final Exit Network, its medical director Lawrence Egbert, 85, of Baltimore, and three other officials with felony counts of assisting suicide and interference with a death scene, a gross misdemeanor. The others named in the indictment are Jerry Dincin, 82, of Highland Park, Ill., Roberta Massey, 67, of Bear, Del., and Thomas Goodwin, 66, of Punta Gorda, Fla.
Authorities say Egbert and Dincin went to Minnesota to be with Doreen Dunn when she took her life in her Apple Valley home, and likely dumped the equipment she used to kill herself on their way back to the airport. Dunn had suffered through a decade of intense, chronic pain after a medical procedure went wrong.
Prosecutors said it's not against the law to commit suicide, but the assisted-suicide statute is designed to preserve human life, especially the lives of vulnerable people such as Dunn.
Rivas wrote that the statute could be interpreted to make it a crime for "exit guides" to advise people on how to die peacefully and with certainty if they decide to take their lives.
It's not the first time Minnesota's assisted-suicide law has been challenged. The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently upheld the convictions of a former nurse who sought out suicidal people online and encouraged two to kill themselves. The court found the actions of William Melchert-Dinkel were not protected speech. That case is currently before that state Supreme Court.
The state believes that the appellate court's decision in that case was correct, because the court found that his speech was integral to the suicides of his two victims. But Rivas said the appeals court ruled on the "facial constitutionality" of the statute in an argument that was never brought before a lower court — and that was inappropriate.
Final Exit Network is run by volunteers who believe that mentally competent adults have a basic human right to end their lives if they suffer from "fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain" and meet other criteria, according to the group's website.
"We do not encourage anyone to end their life, are opposed to anyone's encouraging another to end his life, do not provide the means to do so, and do not assist in a person's death," the website says.