Court hears challenge to assisted-suicide law
By Bill Rankin and Jeffry Scott
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia's highest court on Monday will hear a challenge that seeks to strike down the state's assisted-suicide law, passed by the Legislature almost two decades ago to punish people like the late Jack Kevorkian who helped people kill themselves.
Kevorkian, a Michigan pathologist known as "Dr. Death," died in June. He catapulted into fame in the early 1990s by overseeing the suicides of more than 100 people and prompting dozens of states to criminalize assisted-suicide. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court held that preventing assisted suicide was a legitimate state interest. Only three states -- Oregon, Washington and Montana -- legalize it.
In 1994, the Georgia Legislature enacted a law that 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." The crime carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Last year, a Forsyth grand jury indicted Ted Goodwin, Final Exit's former president; anaesthesiologist Lawrence Egbert, who co-founded the group; regional coordinator Nichols Alec Sheridan; and group member Claire Blehr. They are charged with violating the assisted-suicide law, racketeering and tampering with evidence. Prosecutors say if the suicide law is struck down, the entire case must be dismissed.
Prosecutors say Celmer emailed his medical records to Final Exit and completed a questionnaire for the nonprofit group. Sheridan then told Celmer he would assist him and then Blehr was assigned as his "exit guide," court filings say. Celmer later purchased an "exit hood" and two helium tanks.
On June 19, 2008, with Goodwin and Celmer present, Celmer attached the hood to one of the tanks, turned it on and died of asphyxia suffocation from breathing in helium.
In pre-trial motions, the Final Exit defendants asked Forsyth Superior Court Judge David Dickinson to declare the law unconstitutional. But Dickinson denied the motions, saying the law does not chill or limit speech, such as advertising services to assist in suicides. "The speech is limited only when combined with an overt physical act which assists in suicide," Dickinson wrote.
Atlanta lawyer Don Samuel, who represents Egbert, called the assisted-suicide law "a very odd statute."
"Georgia is the only state in the country not to make it a crime to assist in a suicide -- only to make it a crime when someone first advertises or offers to assist," he said. "If Georgia is so concerned about assisted suicides, then it ought to outlaw assisted suicides instead of outlawing speech."
The state has not criminalized almost all assisted suicides with existing law, said Final Exit's lawyer.
"This doesn't even make it a crime for a stepson who hates his stepfather and wants the estate and who then helps his stepfather carry out his suicide," he said. "The law doesn't do much at all to prohibit assisted suicides. Actually, it does practically nothing about it."
Forsyth District Attorney Penny Penn declined to comment, referring to her filing with the Supreme Court.
The law does "not even remotely" restrict free speech, her filing says. "A person can write about assisted suicide, advocate for assisted suicide, speak on the steps of the Capitol or at the entrance to a nursing home without any repercussion, so long as he does not offer to assist a person in committing suicide and then act on said offer."
The law "is intended to prevent a Dr. Kevorkian-type actor coming to the state of Georgia and publicly assisting suicide. The Final Exit Network and its 'exit guides' are just such actors."