A Georgia judge rejected a free-speech challenge to the state's law against assisted suicide, allowing a high-profile case to proceed against four members of a suicide group charged with helping a cancer-stricken man kill himself.
Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Dickinson said in the opinion released yesterday that "pure speech is in no way chilled or limited" by the law, siding with prosecutors in the state's case against four Final Exit Network members.
"The court understands that defendants contend that the statute criminalizes only speech," the judge wrote in the 13-page ruling. "However, the court finds that the statute requires both speech and an overt act in furtherance of assisting in the suicide."
Georgia law makes it a felony for anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose." It sets a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The four claim the law violates their free-speech rights because instead of criminalizing suicide or assisted suicide, it bans people from publicly speaking about assisted suicide and then participating in the death. Their attorneys asked a judge in December to dismiss the charges on free-speech grounds.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said at a December hearing the statute was drafted to discourage assisted suicide, even if that wasn't spelled out in the law. She urged Superior Court Judge David Dickinson to dismiss the challenge so the case could move forward.
Dickinson's decision, which also rejected other challenges to the law, is unlikely to resolve the dispute. Both sides have suggested the case would ultimately be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court regardless of the judge's ruling. Penn and defense attorneys did not return calls seeking comment in time for this story.
The four members of the network were arrested in February 2009 after 58-year-old John Celmer's death at his north Georgia home. They were arrested after an eight-month investigation by state authorities, in which an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to commit suicide infiltrated the group.
A grand jury in March 2010 indicted Ted Goodwin, the group's former president; group member Claire Blehr; ex-medical director Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert; and regional coordinator Nicholas Alec Sheridan. The four pleaded not guilty to charges that they tampered with evidence, violated anti-racketeering laws and helped the man kill himself.
Georgia authorities say Celmer was making a remarkable recovery from cancer when the network sent "exit guides" to his home to show him how to suffocate himself using helium tanks and a plastic hood. And police say that in 2007, the group helped an Arizona woman named Jana Van Voorhis who was depressed but not terminally ill.
Prosecutors say Goodwin and Blehr were with Celmer when he died, each holding one of his hands, and that they removed a helium tank and hood Celmer wore to help him suffocate. Investigators said Egbert and Sheridan evaluated him before his death and gave the OK for his suicide.
The network's leaders have acknowledged they helped nearly 200 people across the country die. But they say they never actively assisted suicide, but guided them through the complicated suicide process outlined in a best-selling suicide manual by British author Derek Humphry.
Goodwin and others have said they hope the legal fight will help validate the movement's efforts and expose the constitutional defects in Georgia law. They said if the government was interested in preventing suicide, lawmakers should have adopted a law specifically outlawing it.