ATLANTA, Georgia, March 27, 2012— The Georgia Senate, by a vote of 48 to 1, passed a bill at 7:47 p.m. today to make “assisting in a suicide” a crime, punishable by one to ten years in prison.
The Senate bill was a reaction to the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision, on February 6, 2012, declaring the existing law unconstitutional in violation of First Amendment free speech principles.
The Supreme Court ruling terminated the prosecution of the “Georgia Four,” Final Exit Network volunteers who had been arrested and charged in February 2009 under the old law. The GeorgiaHouse passed a similar bill on March 7. Because the Senate bill differs from the House bill, the two proposals must now go to a conference committee before a final law can be enacted.
The Senate bill differs from the House bill primarily in that it brings the crime of “assisting in a suicide” within the orbit of the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) law. This designation would mean that any group of people who work together to commit the “crime” created by this law would also be subject to being charged with racketeering, which subjects them to long prison terms and the forfeiture of their assets. The RICO provision was specifically targeted at Final Exit Network, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Rep. William Ligon, Jr., said in the Senate debate.
Those who enacted the bill were told wildly sensational, demonstrably false stories about Final Exit Network. Ligon’s presentation of the bill featured statements that were not even supported by the worst of the allegations made by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in its prosecution of the Georgia Four. Ligon, a member of the Georgia Bar, argued in favor of the bill based on statements that had never been heard before, not even by Final Exit Network’s most strident opponents in Georgia. His presentation reflected an abject ignorance of — or a calculated disregard for — the evidence and allegations presented by the GBI in its prosecution of the Georgia Four.
Ligon said John Celmer, whose 2008 death provoked the investigation, was “going through a divorce” at the time of his death. Celmer was not going through a divorce. Ligon said Final Exit Network “ordered tanks of helium gas” for Celmer. Final Exit Network does not provide the means for anyone to commit suicide and would never order a tank of helium gas for anyone. The GBI never made this claim. Nobody who ever reviewed the GBI’s allegations could make this statement in good faith. “And then they would take a plastic bag and hook the tubes up to it and put it over his face,” Ligon said.
The fact is, Final Exit Network volunteers do not assist in suicides. Even the most accusatory allegations of the GBI never claimed that anyone from Final Exit Network ever hooked the tubes up to a plastic bag or put a bag over anyone’s face. But Ligon was just revving up his description of what the Final Exit Network volunteers, in his fictional tale, did to Celmer.
“And they told him, ‘Now, as you start breathing in that helium, you’re going to have a natural reaction where you’re going to want to come up and take that plastic off of your head.’ Well, but they said, ‘You’re gonna have to sign a consent where you agree that once you put that bag over your head, there’s no turnin’ back. You can’t stop it. And we’re gonna hold your arms down so that you can’t remove the bag.’ Well, that’s exactly what happened. They turned the gas on, and as he reached up to grab the bag, his arms were held down, and he died.”
The oddity of Ligon’s fable is that, if it were true, the Final Exit Network volunteers would have been committing first-degree murder under the existing law of Georgia. It did not seem to occur to Ligon that there would not be any need to revise Georgia law to criminalize the conduct he described.
In fact, Final Exit Network’s protocols prohibit everything Ligon described. The prosecution’s evidence in the Georgia Four case lent no support to his statements. In the prosecution of the Georgia Four, nobody from the GBI ever claimed that Celmer reached up and tried to grab a bag, or that anybody ever held his hands down.
Ligon said that an autopsy of Celmer established that his body “was full of the helium” after his death. Of course, the fact is, no autopsy ever discovered any helium in Celmer’s body. The autopsy is a matter of public record for anyone, including Ligon, to review. The helium inhalation method of self-deliverance leaves no helium in a decedent’s body.