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Press release

ATLANTA, Georgia, Feb. 6, 2012 — The Supreme Court of Georgia today struck down the state’s assisted-suicide law, abruptly terminating the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s prosecution of four Final Exit Network right-to-die activists.

The state high court agreed with the 3,000-member, national not-for-profit organization’s argument that the Georgia law violated the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the corresponding provision of the Georgia Constitution.

“We are overjoyed for our friends and colleagues who were so unjustly treated like criminals for three years,” said FEN’s president, Wendell Stephenson, a college ethics professor, of Fresno, California. “These are good and compassionate people who did not break any laws.”
FEN’s former president, Ted Goodwin, who turns 66 next week, of suburban Atlanta and Punta Gorda, Florida; its former medical director, Lawrence D. Egbert, 84, of Baltimore; a case coordinator, Nicholas A. Sheridan, 62, of Baltimore; and an “exit guide,” Claire H. Blehr, 79, of suburban Atlanta, had each been free on $60,000 bail since their arrest on February 25, 2009. The case never came to trial.

FEN and its volunteers argued that the Georgia law prohibited speech about assisted suicide, while doing little or nothing to accomplish the state’s goal of discouraging the actual assistance in a suicide.

The Supreme Court agreed, saying, “Although the State attempts to portray [the statute] as simply a ban on assisted suicide, the clear language of the statute demonstrates otherwise. . . . The State has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech rights.”

Even before the law was stricken down, it was perfectly legal in Georgia for a doctor to write a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs to enable a patient to die at the time of his own choosing, so long as the doctor did not “publicly advertise, offer, or hold out” that he would do so. After Monday’s decision, physician assisted suicide is legal in Georgia even if a doctor publicly advertises that he is available to perform this service.

“Aiding” or “assisting” in a suicide is illegal in most states. FEN advertises (at www.finalexitnetwork.org) that it does not illegally “aid” or “assist” in suicides, but offers only information, education, and emotional support to those who are suffering intolerably. In the wake of Monday’s decision the state will never have to prove its accusation, hotly disputed by FEN, that FEN’s volunteers actually assisted in the 2009 suicide of cancer-stricken John Celmer, of Cumming, whose death was the subject of the criminal charges.

The Georgia corporation Final Exit Network, Inc. had been charged with “racketeering,” while the four volunteers were each charged with “offering to assist with commission of suicide,” racketeering, and tampering with evidence. All the charges against all defendants will promptly be dismissed as a result of Monday’s ruling, said FEN’s general counsel, Robert Rivas.

On February 25, 2009, Goodwin and Blehr were arrested near the site of an undercover “sting” operation run by the GBI in the town of Cumming, north of Atlanta. As soon as the undercover operative blew his cover by arresting Goodwin, Egbert and Sheridan were arrested in Baltimore and GBI agents, aided by local law enforcement officers, executed search warrants on members of the FEN leadership at 13 locations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Sarasota, Florida, Ann Arbor, Michigan, St. Louis, Missouri, Mason, Ohio, Aurora, Colorado, and Missoula, Montana.

At the same time, the GBI served warrants on financial institutions to seize $334,786.08 under the Georgia racketeering law. Most of the money consisted of tax-deductible contributions to FEN, but some of it belonged to World Federation of Right to Die Societies, of which FEN is a member, and to FEN-affiliated local organizations in Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey.

At the time of the sting operation, the GBI intended for the arrests, searches, and seizures to “dismantle” FEN, according to internal GBI memoranda released to the defendants in the criminal case. Instead of being “dismantled,” FEN quickly regrouped and continues to provide services to its members to this day.

The first indication that the GBI’s case against FEN was going south came only eight months after the arrests, when a Forsyth County judge ordered that all of the seized funds be released. He ruled that the GBI and state prosecutors had failed to follow the racketeering law in seizing the money.

On April 19, 2011, the trial court judge entered an order denying a motion for all the charges against all the defendants to be dismissed. It was this specific order that was on appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which has now ruled that the trial court judge should have granted the motion to dismiss the charges. In their Supreme Court briefs, both sides agreed that the constitutionality of the Georgia statute was “the whole enchilada” — and that if the statute were to be stricken down as unconstitutional, all charges against all defendants would have to be dismissed.

For more information, go to www.finalexitnetwork.org, and contact Robert Rivas, General Counsel, Final Exit Network, of Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., Tallahassee, Florida; cellphone: (850) 591-1492; email robrivas@aol.com.

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