BALTIMORE (AP) — A sympathetic judge on Thursday let a founder of the Final Exit Network explain his role in six Maryland suicides but refused to reinstate his medical license, saying the law left him no choice.
"It may well be that soon the world will catch up with this and Maryland will catch up to you," Baltimore City Circuit Judge Marcus Shar told Dr. Lawrence Egbert of Baltimore.
A state right-to-die bill is on hold until at least next year, leaving Shar to rule only on whether the state Board of Physicians acted reasonably in revoking the anesthesiologist's license last December for unprofessional conduct.
"I do not question that this was done altruistically and out of concern and compassion for those patients, but that's not the question before the court," Shar said.
Egbert acknowledged he advised chronically ill, long-suffering patients on how to take their lives, was present when they covered their heads with plastic bags and inhaled helium, held their hands as they died and, in some cases, disposed of the equipment. He denied the medical board's assertion that he tried to conceal his involvement from authorities.
"We're proud of what we're doing," Egbert said. "A huge number of people are suffering."
He hasn't been criminally charged in any of the cases, although Assistant Attorney General David Finkler, representing the medical board, said Egbert acted illegally.
Finkler said Egbert's patient selection standards were lower than those in the five states — Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — that have right-to-die measures. For example, Finkler said, not all Egbert's patients were terminally ill.
Sponsors of the Maryland Death With Dignity Act withdrew the bill during this year's legislative session, saying it needed more study. Lawmakers will appoint a work group that will likely start meeting in early fall, said Donna Smith of the Maryland branch of Compassion and Choices, a national, right-to-die advocacy group.
The Maryland Catholic Conference opposed the legislation. Opponents say it's nearly impossible to predict whether someone has six months or less to live.
Egbert, 87, said he won't appeal the ruling. He said he no longer works with Final Exit, based in Tallahassee, Florida,but his medical license qualified him to examine and testify about people who claim to have been tortured and are seeking asylum in the United States.
Egbert says he was present at the suicides of more than 100 people nationwide, and that he processed paperwork for hundreds more as Final Exit's medical director.
The group was convicted in May of assisting in a Minnesota woman's suicide. Egbert was granted immunity so he could testify.
He was acquitted of manslaughter in Arizona in 2011 and avoided prosecution for allegedly violating a Georgia assisted-suicide law when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2012.
This story has been corrected to show that David Finkler is an Assistant Attorney General, not Assistant State's Attorney.