The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Dakota County case against a Florida-based suicide-assistance group in connection with the 2007 death of an Apple Valley woman. The Star Tribune reports the Court has also agreed to hear a cross-appeal from the defendant, Final Exit Network (FEN).
The court will decide whether the Minnesota law that prohibits "advising or encouraging" suicide is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's free speech protections.
Both FEN and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom say they are glad the Supreme Court is hearing the case.
“We continue to believe that the acts of aiding, advising and encouraging someone to take their own life should be prohibited and subject to prosecution under Minnesota law,” Backstrom wrote.
In its fall newsletter, the president of FEN wrote, "It may be that the citizens of Minnesota are capable of drawing pertinent distinctions between irrational suicide and thoughtful self-deliverance."
BringMeTheNews reported last fall that the case originated with Doreen Dunn, 57, who sought out FEN for advice on taking her own life.
Dunn, who suffered from chronic illness for more than a decade, was found dead by her husband at their home on May 30, 2007. Initial autopsy results determined Dunn had died from natural causes.
About two years later, the Dakota County Attorney’s Office learned FEN had assisted Dunn in a suicide. Dunn had made an “exit request” in January 2007, writing in a letter that she was “living with unbearable, excruciating chronic pain that has spread throughout my whole body since 12/96."
Two FEN members were with her the day she died.
Dunn had allegedly placed a device called a “helium hood” — a plastic bag attached to a helium tank — over her head to end her life.
“We are very careful not to encourage anybody to end their life,” Frank Kavanaugh, Final Exit board member, told KSTP in a May report. “We never provide the means for them to do so and we don’t physically assist in any way. All we do is provide information, and we think in doing that we are protected by our First Amendment right of free speech.”
A grand jury indicted FEN and four of its members, including two who were allegedly present at the time of Dunn's suicide, on charges of assisting another to commit suicide and interference with a death scene.
Dakota County District Judge Karen Asphaug dismissed charges against the group’s leader, Thomas “Ted” Goodwin, in March, saying there was no evidence he met or talked to Dunn. Another defendant, Jerry Dincin, later died.
The remaining defendants asked Asphaug to dismiss the charges against them; she declined, and the case went to the state Court of Appeals.
In October, the Appeals Court ruled that the statute “chills a significant amount of protected speech that does not bear a necessary relationship” to the goal of preventing suicide.
The Appeals Court remanded the remaining charges of aiding and abetting suicide to the district court for trial. Prosecutors then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
An attorney for FEN said the case may be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“From my point of view, there are six other states that have unconstitutional rules like the state of Minnesota,” Robert Rivas said. “To have the U.S. Supreme Court rule [in favor of Final Exit] would invalidate all of them. I would be very happy about that."
A ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court is expected in the spring.