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'Final Exit' Organization Insists it Acted Within Law

Volunteers with the nationwide assisted-suicide network, accused of helping an Apple Valley woman kill herself in 2007, have been charged with similar crimes in other states.

Doreen Dunn had been in “unbearable, excruciating, chronic pain” for more than a decade when she decided five years ago to take her own life.

The 57-year-old Apple Valley woman sought help from the Final Exit Network, an organization that describes its mission as helping “mentally competent adults” who suffer from fatal or incurable illnesses or “intractable pain” die with dignity, according to its website. 

In May 2007, Dunn placed a device called a “helium hood”—a plastic bag attached to a helium tank—over her head to end her life. She allegedly was in the presence of at least two volunteers from the Final Exit Network at the time.

The nonprofit by a Dakota County grand jury in connection with Dunn’s death. They ranging from assisting another to commit suicide—a felony—to interference with a death scene, which is a gross misdemeanor. 

Dunn’s estranged husband arrived at her home on the evening of May 30, 2007, to find Dunn dead. An autopsy determined that she died of coronary artery disease and noted that she suffered from chronic pain; her death was not listed as a suicide.

Minnesota authorities reopened their investigation into her death in late 2009 after officials in Georgia contacted them about a similar case in that state. Charges there against four members of the Final Exit Network were dismissed when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state’s ban on assisted suicide advertisements was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

The Minnesota indictments—based on laws that are “significantly different” from those in Georgia—came after an “extremely lengthy” investigation, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Monday.

Georgia’s statute "only prohibited public advertising and public offers to assist another person in the commission of suicide,” Backstrom said. “Minnesota’s law includes both public and private advice, encouragement or assistance to a person contemplating suicide.

“What we’re alleging occurred here is private advice or encouragement. That’s unique to Minnesota.”

The indictments did not come as a surprise to Derek Humphry, author of the book Final Exit, founder of the Hemlock Society and an adviser to the Final Exit Network. Last week, on his Assisted-Dying Blog, he quoted the organization’s president, Wendell Stephenson, that any such indictment would be “a politically motivated attack on the whole right-to-die movement.” 

“We wish County Attorney Backstrom would learn something from the history of these prosecutions,” Stephenson, an ethics instructor at Fresno City College in California, told Humphry. “Final Exit Network’s courageous and compassionate volunteers do not participate in any illegal form of assistance in suicides.”

Robert Rivas, a Florida attorney who represents the organization and one of the four people indicted in Minnesota—Jerry Dincin, 81, a former president of the Final Exit Network—told the Associated Press last week that he expected the case to hinge on a state law that prohibits aiding, advising or encouraging a suicide.

Rivas said Minnesota’s law is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of speech by preventing the Final Exit Network from educating people on how to commit suicide. A ruling is expected later this year, however, on a challenge to the law; the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments last month in the case of William Melchert-Dinkel, an ex-nurse who frequented online suicide chat rooms and was convicted of encouraging two depressed people to take their own lives.

The Final Exit Network, founded in 2005, has 3,000 members nationwide who have offered information to hundreds of people suffering from terminal or irreversible conditions, according to Stephenson's interview with the AP.

“We are in accordance with the First Amendment in everything we do,” he said.

The four defendants in the Minnesota case, all of whom live out of state, will be brought to Minnesota for arraignments within the next three to four weeks, Backstrom said Monday.

Read more background from the Associated Press.

Scott Fagerstrom May 15, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Interesting (and difficult) case. Question: In places where physician-assisted suicide is legal (Oregon, The Netherlands), is it legal in cases like this, where the patient apparently wasn't about to die anyway, but was suffering from terrible, chronic pain?
Betsy Sundquist May 15, 2012 at 03:03 PM
Oregon's Death with Dignity Act requires a physician to prescribe medication, but the drugs must be self-administered, and the patient's prognosis must be 6 months or less -- so a patient in chronic pain but not terminal wouldn't qualify. The rules seem a little more broad in the Netherlands: The patient's suffering must be unbearable, with no prospect of improvement.

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