HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — The right-to-die group Final Exit Network Inc. was convicted Thursday of assisting in the suicide of a Minnesota woman who took her life in 2007 after years of suffering with chronic pain, marking the first time the group has been found guilty of such a charge.
Jurors also convicted the group of interfering with a dead body or death scene. It faces a maximum fine of $33,000, its lawyer said, when sentenced in August.
Defense attorney Robert Rivas said he intends to appeal, and called the case a "direct violation of the First Amendment." He said the group, whose members have faced charges in Georgia and Arizona, does nothing illegal and the verdict won't affect how it carries out its activities.
Final Exit Network, founded in 2004, is a nonprofit incorporated in Georgia that says it has about 3,000 members. It is run by volunteers who believe mentally competent adults have a right to end their lives if they suffer from unbearable pain. For people who meet certain criteria, "Exit Guides" provide information and support. Former group president Thomas Goodwin testified that Final Exit Network provides services to those who are dying or on a "dying trajectory."
The group was charged in Minnesota in the death of Doreen Dunn, 57, of Apple Valley, who had been living with intense pain for more than a decade after she had a reaction to a medical procedure. Prosecutors argued that Dunn didn't know how to take her life until agents of Final Exit Network provided her with a "blueprint."
"They go beyond simply advocating a person's right to choose," Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz told jurors. "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."
Rivas had argued that the group 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 Dunn and enabled her to take her life through their physical conduct or speech. Last year, Minnesota's Supreme Court narrowed the state's assisted suicide law and found that speech isn't considered assisting if someone is sharing a viewpoint or providing support, but it can be assisting if it's aimed at giving a specific person instructions on how to end his or her life.
According to trial testimony, Dunn's husband arrived home on May 30, 2007, to find his wife dead, from apparently natural causes. But information uncovered during a 2009 investigation in Georgia revealed that Dunn had joined Final Exit Network and that two members — Jerry Dincin and Dr. Larry Egbert, the group's former medical director — were her "Exit Guides." Equipment she used to take her life by helium asphyxiation, the group's preferred method, had been removed from the scene.
A Minnesota grand jury indicted Final Exit Network, Egbert, Dincin, Goodwin and another member in 2012, but the Minnesota trial was against the group alone. Dincin has died, Egbert was granted immunity so he could be called as a witness, charges against Goodwin were dismissed and a fourth member is too frail to stand trial.
Goodwin testified that "Exit Guides" would sometimes point people to information on where they could obtain equipment to take their own lives and would even rehearse how to properly use the gear. But 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." He said members do not physically assist in suicides.
An earlier case against four Final Exit Network members in Georgia 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.
Rivas has said the Georgia investigation, which happened after Dunn's death, led Final Exit Network to tighten protocols to make prosecutions of future cases less likely.
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