The Pioneer Press in Minnesota reported on 18 December 2012:
Right-to-die group argues free speech in Apple Valley assisted suicide case
A national right-to-die-group argued on Dec. 18 that its role in
the suicide of an Apple Valley woman, which included instructions on the
best way to die by asphyxiation, was protected as free speech.
Four members of Final Exit Network face charges of connected to the
death of Doreen Dunn, who died by suicide in May 2007 after struggling
with chronic, debilitating pain, though she was not terminally ill.
Dunn joined the group earlier that year, reportedly writing a letter
that explained her condition. Members pay a one-time fee of about $50
and also submit medical records.
Two of the group’s members later traveled to Minnesota as “exit guides”
and were in Dunn’s home when she died, according to authorities and
About a dozen Final Exit Network supporters, some from out of state, came to the courtroom to watch the proceedings.
According to prosecutors, guides usually visit members before a suicide,
help them practice the method — typically asphyxiation by inhaling
helium from a plastic bag placed over the head — offer moral support
and comfort, and remove evidence of the suicide after the fact if asked
to do so.
Charges against four members including aiding suicide, which are
felonies, and interfering with a death scene, a gross misdemenaor.
Attorneys for the defendants told Dakota County District Court Judge
Karen Asphaug Tuesday that the group did nothing more than provide
readily available information and moral support to
Even that is a crime under Minnesota law, which bars advising,
encouraging or assisting someone in taking his or her own life. But the
defense team says the advising and encouraging portions should be thrown
out as unconstitutional because they infringe on free speech without
Robert Rivas, a Florida attorney for Final Exit Network, said the information on suicide by helium inhalation is readily available from numerous sources,
include the 1991 book by Derek Humphry “Final Exit” from which the group takes its name.
“The speech that Final Exit Network is being prohibited from making in this case is speech that is being made every day by plenty of Minnesotans,” he said.
John Lunquist, a Minneapolis attorney for the defense, said the state
was making a convoluted case that selling thousands of copies of the
book was legal, but giving the same information to one person was not.
Asphaug put that question to prosecutors, asking them the difference
between Final Exit’s communications with Dunn and dialogue in a recent
Guthrie Theater play by Tony Kushner that spelled out much of the same
information about committing suicide.
Assistant Dakota County Attorney Elizabeth Swank said the distinction
lies in intent. Final Exit Network members knew Dunn was contemplating suicide and that their actions were intended to facilitate that outcome, Swank said.
Curtailing such speech is acceptable because the state has a compelling
interest “in protecting human life and protecting vulnerable
individuals,” she said.
People are still free to talk openly about suicide and suicide methods,
she said — but not with the intent of convincing someone to commit suicide.
The case is one of two pending in Minnesota that involves issues of free
speech and suicide. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals
upheld the conviction of a former nurse who sent Internet messages
encouraging people to kill themselves.
The appeals court rejected a free-speech defense in that case, but the
state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal and should do so next year.
Final Exit’s attorneys said Tuesday the appeals court overreached and
that the decision will not stand up under further scruntiny.
Final Exit Network says it does not encourage people to kill themselves, and in many cases urges them to seek alternatives.
Asphaug is expected to rule on the First Amendment issue, as well as a
handful of other challenges ranging from probable cause to statute of
limitations, in the coming weeks, though she did not set a date.