TALLAHASSEE, FL--(Marketwire - December 27, 2012) - Final Exit Network made a powerful presentation to a Minnesota court on Tuesday, December 18 in favor of dismissing a criminal case against its volunteers, arguing that the Minnesota law violates their First Amendment rights.
The Final Exit Network corporation, two former presidents, a former medical director and a former case coordinator were named in a 17-count indictment filed last May in Dakota County District Court, charging them with "advising, encouraging or assisting" in a "suicide," aiding and abetting, and tampering with evidence at the scene of a death. The charges arise from the May 30, 2007 self deliverance of Doreen Gunderson Dunn, 57, a resident of Apple Valley.
District Judge Karen Asphaug held a hearing in Hastings, a small town on the Mississippi River a half-hour south of St. Paul, on several motions filed by the defense team. Final Exit Network board members traveled from California, Florida and Ohio and slogged through the snow to show support for the indicted volunteers, along with about 10 FEN members from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and a law professor and his student, who dropped in -- wearing FEN lapel pins -- to see a "right to die" case in real life.
The main argument was over the constitutionality of the Minnesota law. Though Final Exit Network acknowledges that it is constitutionally permissible to criminalize actual, tangible "assisting" in a "suicide," the organization maintains that Minnesota's law violates the First Amendment-protected right to freedom of speech by also prohibiting "advising" about "suicide" or "encouraging" a "suicide." Though Final Exit Network's protocols prohibit "advising" anyone in favor of suicide, or encouraging a suicide, the statute's language could be construed to prohibit giving information, education, and moral support, which FEN does.
"The prosecutor seemed to be saying Final Exit Network's speech was not protected by the First Amendment because it was 'integral to a crime,'" FEN's president Wendell Stephenson, of Fresno, California, said after the hearing. "This made no sense, because our speech itself was the crime. It was not a means to some other crime. I mean, suicide is not a crime. So what crime is our speech 'integral' to?"
Puzzling over the meaning of the statute, Judge Asphaug pointedly asked the prosecutors whether Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner broke the law in writing The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, which debuted in Minneapolis and was later produced off-Broadway. In the play, when the elderly, disillusioned protagonist announces his intent to die, the widow of an old friend gives him a graphic explanation -- "with props," the judge exclaimed -- of how to terminate his life.
Judge Asphaug said she had seen the Kushner play's debut at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009. She was left with an indelible memory of the graphic scene.
The prosecutor said Kushner and the producers of the play did not break the law because they did not "intentionally" target the information at a person who was "actively contemplating" his or her own "suicide."
No rulings were announced at the hearing. The judge said she would enter written rulings as soon as possible.
FEN's former case coordinator Roberta Massey, 67, of Bear, Delaware, is represented by Ronald I. Meshbesher, the "dean" of Minnesota criminal defense lawyers. Former president Ted Goodwin, 66, of Punta Gorda, Florida, is represented by John Lundquist, a white collar criminal defense specialist. FEN's former medical director, Dr. Larry Egbert, 85, of Baltimore, is represented by Donald F. Samuel and Kristen Wright Novay, of Garland, Samuel & Loeb, in Atlanta, who previously -- with 100 percent success -- defended Dr. Egbert from criminal prosecutions brought in Georgia and Arizona.
Finally, former FEN president Jerry Dincin, 82, of Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, is represented by FEN's general counsel, Robert Rivas, of the Tallahassee office of Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., a law firm based in Palm Beach County, Florida, who assembled the defense team. The defense team also has local support from Bill Sherry, who has practiced criminal defense law in Dakota County for 20 years.