By Bill Rankin
The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down a key provision of a state law that criminalized some assisted suicides, finding it violates free speech rights.
The court's ruling means that four members of the Final Exit Network do not have to stand trial on felony charges in Forsyth County in connection with the 2008 suicide of 58-year-old John Celmer, who killed himself two years after he had been diagnosed with cancer.
The state Legislature passed the law in 1994 to punish people like the late Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist known as "Dr. Death." He catapulted to fame in the early 1990s by overseeing the suicides of more than 100 people, prompting a number of states to criminalize assisted suicide.
The state Supreme Court said Georgia's law is unconstitutional because it does not prohibit all assisted suicides and, instead, criminalizes only those in which someone advertises or offers to assist in a suicide and then takes steps to help carry it out.
"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," Justice Hugh Thompson wrote for the court.
"Had the state truly been interested in the preservation of human life ... it could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech whatsoever," Thompson wrote. "Alternatively, the state could have sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide when accompanied by an overt act to accomplish that goal. The state here did neither."
Ted Goodwin, Final Exit's former president and a defendant in the Forsyth case, called the ruling "a bittersweet victory."
"I'm saddened by what we've been put through," he said. "I'm also sad for all the people who would have benefited from our compassionate presence at their life's bitter end over the last three years."
Goodwin said once the charges are formally dismissed, "We'll move forward again as activists in our movement."
Forsyth District Attorney Penny Penn said if the law had survived the constitutional challenge, she was confident she could have won convictions against the four defendants for Celmer's suicide.
"They behave irresponsibly and prey on people who are vulnerable," Penn said. "John Celmer wasn't terminally ill. He had cancer, but it was in remission."
Penn noted that another key provision of the law that makes it a crime to prey on someone's fears, affections or sympathies to get them to commit suicide is still on the books. But she called on state lawmakers to try once again to write a new statute that criminalizes the work of organizations like the Final Exit Network.
"They weren't discouraged or deterred when there were laws in place, so think what they'll do now," Penn said.
A key state lawmaker, Rich Golick, a Smyrna Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he anticipates the General Assembly will consider new assisted-suicide legislation this session.
In 2010, a Forsyth grand jury indicted Goodwin; anaesthesiologist Lawrence Egbert, who co-founded the group; regional coordinator Nicholas Alex Sheridan; and group member Claire Blehr.
They were charged with violating the assisted-suicide law, racketeering and tampering with evidence. Because the provision of the assisted-suicide law was struck down, the entire case will be dismissed, Penn said.
During pretrial hearings, defense lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the law. A Forsyth judge upheld the law, and they appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Don Samuel, who represents Final Exit and Egbert, said when the state Supreme Court unanimously strikes down a statute, "there should be little doubt that the state Legislature should do a better job. This statute outlawed speech, pure and simple, and that's something the law cannot do. If the Legislature wants to go back and make all assisted suicides a crime, there are dozens of state laws they can pattern it after."
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court said states could enact laws banning assisted suicide. Only three states -- Oregon, Washington and Montana -- legalize it.
Staff writer Christopher Quinn contributed to this article.