Trial to begin for national group accused of aiding Minnesota woman’s 2007 suicide
MINNEAPOLIS — The national right-to-die group Final Exit Network Inc. goes to trial in Minnesota this week for allegedly assisting in the suicide of a 57-year-old woman who died in 2007 after years of chronic pain. Here’s what you need to know:
In 2012, a Minnesota grand jury indicted Final Exit Network and four of its members in the death of Doreen Dunn, who had been living with intense pain for more than a decade because of a botched medical procedure.
Court records say there was no sign of suicide in Dunn’s home and her death was considered natural. But internal Final Exit Network records showed Dunn had joined the right-to-die group earlier that year and two members — former medical director Dr. Larry Egbert and Jerry Dincin — made round-trip flights to Minnesota the day she died in 2007. Dunn’s death is noted in the group’s records.
Prosecutors believe Egbert and Dincin were Dunn’s “exit guides,” and disposed of materials she used to take her life.
Egbert, 87, of Baltimore, and Dincin, of Highland Park, Illinois, were charged with assisting Dunn’s suicide and other counts. Roberta Massey, 69, of Bear, Delaware, was also charged, along with former group president Ted Goodwin, 68, of Punta Gorda, Florida.
But the charges against Goodwin were dismissed, Dincin died in 2013, Massey’s case was put on hold because she’s in frail health and Egbert’s case was separated because prosecutors want to call him as a witness against Final Exit Network and granted him immunity.
BURDEN OF PROOF
Final Exit Network is charged with one felony count of assisting another in committing suicide and one gross misdemeanor count of interfering with a death scene.
The state must prove Dunn took her own life with Final Exit’s help, either through the group’s speech or actions.
The Minnesota Supreme Court narrowed the state’s assisted suicide law last year, saying speech isn’t considered assisting when someone is just sharing a viewpoint or providing support, but can be assisting if it’s aimed at giving a specific person instructions on how to end his or her own life.
If convicted, Final Exit Network faces a maximum $33,000 fine, defense attorney Robert Rivas said.
Dakota County prosecutors declined to comment.
WHAT IS FINAL EXIT NETWORK?
Final Exit Network is a nonprofit corporation run by volunteers who believe mentally competent adults have a basic human right to end their lives if they suffer from “fatal or irreversible physical illness, from intractable physical pain, or from a constellation of chronic, progressive physical disabilities,” according to the group’s website. If people meet certain criteria, “Exit Guides” provide information and support them during the dying process.
Rivas estimated the group, which says it does not assist in deaths, has recorded roughly 300 “exits” since it was founded in 2004.
LEGAL ISSUES IN OTHER STATES
In 2009, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had Egbert and three other Final Exit members arrested and sent more than 100 letters to law enforcement agencies around the country, advising them of possible assisted suicide cases in their areas. But the case in Georgia was tossed out after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that its assisted-suicide law was unconstitutional.
Egbert was acquitted of a manslaughter charge in Arizona in 2011; three others pleaded guilty to minor counts that resulted in no jail time, Rivas said.
The Maryland Board of Physicians revoked Egbert’s medical license in December, citing his alleged assistance in six suicides from 2004 to 2008. Egbert, who no longer works with Final Exit or practices medicine, is appealing.
Five states allow patients to seek aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico.
WHY IT MATTERS
The decision in Minnesota isn’t binding in other states, but, Rivas said, the outcome could influence whether or not prosecutors decide to pursue charges elsewhere.
Rivas also said that the 2009 Georgia arrests led Final Exit Network to tighten protocols to make prosecutions of future cases less likely. Among the changes, the group decided it would no longer accept cases when immediate family members were opposed and might pursue charges.
The group also created stricter criteria for approving applicants with mental illness. Rivas said the group hasn’t approved any mental illness cases since 2009.