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HASTINGS, Minnesota — James C. Backstrom, the prosecutor in this
suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is launching an attack on the right-to-die
Backstrom has publicly revealed plans to secure grand jury indictments this
Friday (May 11, 2012) against Final Exit Network, one of the nation’s leading
organizations in the movement for the right to death with dignity.
Final Exit Network is an all-volunteer group of senior citizens who provide
information, education and emotional support to its members when they have
made a competent decision to terminate intolerable suffering.
The Dakota County grand jury is investigating the May 30, 2007 suicide of
Doreen Dunn in Apple Valley, Minnesota, in Dakota County. She suffered from
permanent, incurable, painful, debilitating conditions that, her doctor wrote, made her unable to sit or stand for more than 10 minutes at a time, sleep for more than four hours a night, travel, work, or enjoy “any social life.” She herself wrote that she experienced great pain from “any pressure” or “any movement.”
While it is illegal to assist in a suicide in most states, under its protocols, Final Exit Network carefully does not cross the line into “assisting” in its members’ suicides. Final Exit Network volunteers attend deaths to provide emotional support to their members, but they do not provide the means for their members to hasten their deaths, and they do not physically assist.
The Final Exit Network corporation and seven of its members were charged
in 2009 with assisting in suicides in Arizona and Georgia. Those prosecutions
ended in failure. Nobody from Final Exit Network has ever been adjudicated
guilty of assisting in a suicide.
“We wish County Attorney Backstrom would learn something from the
history of these prosecutions,” said Final Exit Network’s president, Wendell
Stephenson, an ethics instructor at Fresno City College in California. “Final Exit Network’s courageous and compassionate volunteers do not participate in any illegal form of assistance in suicides.
“We think the Minnesota investigation is a politically motivated attack on
the whole right-to-die movement.”
In only one case has a jury reached a verdict on a charge against a Final Exit
Network volunteer. FEN’s then-medical director, Dr. Larry Egbert, 83, of
Baltimore, was charged in Phoenix with conspiracy to assist in a suicide. On April 19, 2011, after a three-week trial, the jury found him not guilty.
In the same trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict as to exit guide
Frank Langsner, 86, of suburban Phoenix. The jury deadlocked 7 to 1 in favor of finding Langsner “not guilty” of conspiracy, and voted 4 to convict and 3 to acquit, with one abstention, on the charge of assisting in a suicide.
Instead of retrying Langsner, the Maricopa County prosecutors offered a
plea deal to a minor misdemeanor with a sentence of one year on probation. His
lawyer called it “an offer he could not refuse,” and Langsner pleaded guilty.
Previously, in the same case, the prosecutors offered plea bargains to two
other charged exit guides in exchange for their testimony at trial. Those two
pleaded guilty to minor misdemeanors and were sentenced to one year on
probation. None of the three Arizona guilty pleas was to a felony, or to the crime of assisting in a suicide.
In northern Georgia, the Forsyth County prosecutors brought charges of
assisting in a suicide, racketeering, and conspiracy against the Final Exit Network corporation and four volunteers, including Dr. Egbert.
Under the law, the Georgia charges could have resulted in 25-year prison
terms for the individuals and the dissolution of the corporation and forfeiture of all of its assets. Instead, however, the charges were all dismissed before trial when the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled the Georgia statute to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Minnesota’s statute is subject to the same First Amendment problem as the
Georgia statute. The Minnesota statute defines “aiding” in a suicide to include “advising, encouraging, or assisting” in the suicide.
In most of the 37 states that have a statute specifically banning assistance in a suicide, the statute bans the providing of physical aid or assistance in a suicide or providing the means for another to commit suicide.
“In the Minnesota statute, the words ‘advising’ and ‘encouraging’ are
vague, undefined, and facially overbroad under the First Amendment because they could be interpreted to prohibit protected speech,” said Final Exit Network’s general counsel, Robert Rivas, who argued the Georgia case to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
“The only other states whose statutes use that kind of impermissibly vague,
overbroad language are California, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota,
Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. We are confident the laws of those seven states are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. I guess Minnesota’s law will now be the first of them to be tested in court.”
For more information, go to www.finalexitnetwork.org, and contact
Wendell Stephenson, the president, of Fresno, California;

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