Supporting the human right to a Death With Dignity
Supporting the human right to a Death With Dignity
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FEN General Counsel Robert Rivas reports on the trial in Hastings, MN.
Minnesota Case: Final Exit Network Found Guilty
Of a Crime For Showing Compassion
By Rob Rivas, General Counsel Final Exit Network

HASTINGS, Minnesota, May 14, 2016 — A 12-member jury found Final Exit Network, Inc. guilty of “assisting” in a “suicide” and interfering with the scene of a death so as to “mislead” the coroner. 

A five-woman, seven-man jury deliberated for only about half an hour at the end of the day on Wednesday, May 13, then another hour in the morning the next day before rendering its unanimous verdict, finding the not-for-profit corporation guilty on both of the counts against it. 

Judge Christian Wilton set the sentencing hearing to take place at 9 a.m. on August 24. The “assisting” in a “suicide” count, a felony, carries with it a potential fine of $30,000, while the charge of interfering “with the body or scene of death with intent to mislead the coroner or conceal evidence,” a “gross” misdemeanor, is punishable by a fine of up to $3,000.

Thus, since a corporation cannot be incarcerated, and no Final Exit Network board members or volunteers face any potential sanctions, the maximum possible punishment is a fine of $33,000.

The State’s case consisted of proof that the Network’s volunteers provided information, education, and emotional support to Doreen Dunn, 57, of Apple Valley, in her self-deliverance on May 30, 2007.

“The State’s entire case proceeded on the theory that Final Exit Network could be convicted solely for exercising its First Amendment-protected right to freedom of speech,” said the Network’s attorney, Robert Rivas. “And the judge instructed the jurors that they could convict the Network with no evidence of actual assisting, but only of speech.” 

The Network immediately initiated plans to appeal to the Court of Appeals of Minnesota, the first step in the ladder of appeals from a conviction in the District Court of Dakota County.

To those who have followed the Network’s battle with the State of Minnesota since it began in 2012, the infringement of free speech rights that unfolded at the trial this week would seem completely implausible and inexplicable. Here’s how it happened.

The Minnesota statute prohibiting assistance in a “suicide” prohibits not only “assisting,” but also “advising” or “encouraging” a suicide. The State originally indicted the Network with plans, as openly stated, to try to convict the Network of “advising” or “encouraging” a suicide, since the State had no evidence of “assisting.” 

The Network moved to dismiss the indictment to the extent it relied on “advising” or “encouraging” a suicide, saying these two provisions violated the First Amendment-protected right of free speech. All the while the Network acknowledged that the State could theoretically convict a defendant of “assisting” in a “suicide” if it could prove actual physical assistance. 

The trial court judge, Karen Asphaug, agreed with the Network and ordered that the State’s case could proceed only on the “assisting” language of that statute, holding the “advise” and “encourage” clauses unconstitutional. The State appealed to the intermediate Court of Appeals of Minnesota. 

In 2013, the Court of Appeals, in resounding terms, agreed with the Network and Judge Asphaug and held the Minnesota statute unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the extent it prohibited “advising” and “encouraging” a “suicide.” Final Exit Network’s leadership thought they had struck a decisive blow for the First Amendment and thought the Hastings prosecution could not go forward based on pure speech, and might not be able to go forward at all. 

In the meantime, the Supreme Court of Minnesota was considering the appeal of William Francis Melchert-Dinklel, a middle-aged registered nurse who, as a hobby, trolled the Internet, sought out suicidal young people, pretended to be a suicidal teenager himself, and tried to talk his victims into hanging themselves in a double suicide pact. His only apparent motivation was to watch people die via a Skype hookup. He was charged under the same statute as Final Exit Network — the law against “advising, encouraging, or assisting” in a “suicide.”

In its Melchert-Dinkel decision, the Supreme Court — consistent with the Court of Appeals’ decision in the Final Exit Network case — held that the “advising” and “encouraging” provisions of the Minnesota statute had to be severed from the statute as violative of the First Amendment. 

Yet the Melchert-Dinkel precedent contained one paragraph that came back to haunt the Network this week. It said “assisting” in a “suicide” could be accomplished by “speech” if the speech “enabled” a suicide. Thus, having said a state law could not constitutionally prohibit “advising” or “encouraging” a “suicide,” the Supreme Court of Minnesota decreed that the courts themselves could prohibit “advising” or “encouraging” a “suicide” by their interpretation of the meaning of the word “assisting.”

In Hastings, Judge Wilton’s instructions to the jury said the jury could convict the Network of “assisting” in a suicide by “speech” if the speech “enabled” a suicide. In other words, speech on how to commit “suicide” would now be punishable as the felony of “assisting” in a “suicide.”

The final trap was sprung on the Network the day before the trial began, when the State filed a motion to amend the indictment. Where the indictment alleged that the crime took place on May 30, 2007, the day of Ms. Dunn’s self-deliverance, the proposed amendment expanded the date range for the commission of the crime to span from February 1, 2007 to May 30, 2007. By this sleight-of-hand the State swept all the communications between the Network and Ms. Dunn, from the day she applied for Exit Guide services through the date of her death, into the period of time during which the crime was allegedly committed.

Astoundingly, the judge granted the State’s motion to amend the indictment the day before the trial began. 

Between the expanded definition of “assisting” in a suicide, and the expanded date range for the crime, the State was allowed to contend that all of the activities that Final Exit Network performs in connection with Exit Guide services — all of the information, education, and support services routinely provided by Final Exit Network — together constituted a crime. The State was allowed to argue, and put on all its evidence in support of the argument, that the Network provided Ms. Dunn a “blueprint to kill herself,” and thereby “enabled” her to commit suicide, which constitutes “assisting” in a “suicide.”

The State’s successful prosecution in Minnesota sets a precedent that threatens the core of Final Exit Network’s Exit Guide program. Under the Minnesota precedent, any state with a law prohibiting “assisting” in a “suicide” could apply the Minnesota definition to the word “assisting.”

Minnesota did not protect free speech rights by its appellate rulings in 2013. Minnesota has merely recast the terminology in which free speech rights are violated. Now, any state may infringe on freedom of speech without openly saying so. Even a state that never before had a law prohibiting the “advising” or “encouraging” a “suicide” may now ban “advising” or “encouraging” a suicide by interpreting and redefining the word “assisting” to include the concepts of “advising” or “encouraging.”

FEN president Janis Landis

"Be with us now, so we can be 
with you later."
President's Response
June 24, 2018
Assisted death rate up in 2017
Nearly 400 people used California assisted death law last year
The Associated Press
By Don Thompson
    Sacramento, California health officials reported Friday that 374 terminally ill people took drugs to end their lives in 2017, the first full year after a law made the option legal.
    Of the 374 who died, about 90 percent were more than 60 years old, about 95 percent were insured and about 83 percent were receiving hospice or similar care. The median age was 74.
    The figures are more than double those from the first six months after the law went into effect June 9, 2016. In those early months 191 people received life-ending drugs, while 111 people took them and died.

June 9, 2018
Die Like a Dog
By Joseph Pierre, MD
     Pet dogs often have a peaceful death that forestalls protracted suffering and pain. Why can’t we do the same for humans?
In human medicine, we’re used to implementing any and every life-saving intervention right up to the very end. 
     As a medical intern 20 years ago, I remember thinking about the futility of that approach with patients in pain and suffering from multisystem organ failure, sustained only by machines and a regimen of some 30 or 40 medications, and unlikely to ever make it out of the hospital. What was the point? Whatever happened to quality of life? But those reservations be damned, we never gave up, and among the interns who transferred care to each other from shift to shift, the dictum of patients ‘not dying on my watch’ was something to which we all held fast.

May 2, 2018
David Goodall: 104-year old Scientist Wants to Die. His Birthday Wish is to Die
Washington Post
By Lindsey Beaver
   Bubbles danced in fancy glasses and birthday candles burned atop a cheesecake marking 104 years of a long and accomplished life.
  David Goodall listened quietly as his loved ones started to sing.
  Then he took a breath, made a wish and blew out the flames.
  But Goodall was not wholeheartedly celebrating the milestone last month in Perth, Australia. The botanist and ecologist, who is thought to be the country’s oldest scientist, said that he has lived too long.
  And now, he said, he is ready to die.
[David Goodall has since died as he wished in Switzerland. Ed. Note]

April 17, 2018
Right-to-die Group Sues Minnesota Attorney General over 2015 Criminal Conviction Group's Attorneys Claim a Minnesota Statute Violated Its Free Speech Rights.
By Stephen Montemayor, Star Tribune
     A national right-to-die group that was convicted of helping an Apple Valley woman end her life is now asking a federal judge to declare that Minnesota’s prosecution violated the group’s free-speech rights.
     The Final Exit Network, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based nonprofit, sued Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson late Monday after exhausting its efforts to appeal its convictions of assisting a suicide and interfering with a death scene delivered by a Dakota County jury in 2015.
     Attorneys for Final Exit argue that a critical element of a statute used to prosecute the group — assisting a suicide — amounts to “pure First Amendment-protected speech.”
     Benjamin Wogsland, a spokesman for Swanson, said the Attorney General’s Office is not an appropriate party in the case and that they plan to ask that it be dismissed.

April 5, 2018
Medically Assisted Suicide Becomes Legal in Hawaii
By Sophia Yan, Associated Press
     Hawaii became the latest liberal-leaning state to legalize medically assisted suicide Thursday as the governor signed a measure into law allowing doctors to fulfill requests from terminally ill patients to prescribe life-ending medication.
     "It is time for terminally ill, mentally competent Hawaii residents who are suffering to make their own end-of-life choices with dignity, grace and peace," Gov. David Ige said.
     Ige said the law was written to ensure the patient is in full control and it provides just one option available for end-of-life care, knowing assisted suicide is not for everyone.
     "But we know that we have gotten to a point in our community that it does make sense to give the patient a choice to request the medication, obtain it and take it, or ultimately change their mind," the governor said.

April 7, 2018
The Guardian
When Do You Know You're Old Enough to Die? Barbara Ehrenreich Has Some Answers
By Lucy Rock
     Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich, 76, reached the realisation that she was old enoughto die. Not that the author, journalist and political activist was sick; she just didn’t want to spoil the time she had left undergoing myriad preventive medical tests or restricting her diet in pursuit of a longer life.While she would seek help for an urgent health issue, she wouldn’t look for problems. 
     Now Ehrenreich felt free to enjoy herself. “I tend to worry that a lot of my friends who are my age don’t get to that point,” she tells the Guardian. “They’re frantically scrambling for new things that might prolong their lives.”
  It is not a suicidal decision, she stresses. Ehrenreich has what she calls “a very keen bullshit detector” and she has done her research.
     The results of this are detailed in her latest book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, published on 10 April. 
     Part polemic, part autobiographical, Ehrenreich – who holds a PhD in cellular immunology – casts a skeptical, sometimes witty, and scientifically rigorous eye over the beliefs we hold that we think will give us longevity. She targets the medical examinations, screenings and tests we’re subjected to in older age.

Dec. 1, 2017
U.S. News and Health Report
Health Buzz: A Man Came In With a 'DNR' Tattoo. Here's What His Doctors Did
An unconscious patient and his unusual tattoo made for quite the ethical dilemma.
By David Oliver, Associate Editor, Social Media
     Doctors from the University of Miami encountered seemingly the ethical dilemma of all ethical dilemmas: A patient with "Do Not Resuscitate" tattooed on his chest, along with what seemed like his signature, arrived at the hospital unconscious and with a high blood alcohol level. Hours later, he developed low blood pressure.
    "We initially decided not to honor the tattoo, invoking the principle of not choosing an irreversible path when faced with uncertainty," the doctors wrote to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine

  Final Exit Network
  P.O. Box 10071
  Tallahassee, FL 32302

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A Dance With Death: 
The Final Days of 
Kelly Johnson 
“I look back at my life and I’ve choreographed an extraordinary dance,” he said. “It’s over. Strike a pose! Bring the curtain down!”
   At 75 years old, Kelly's breathing was labored and his body wracked with arthritis. He was terminally ill with pulmonary disease. After several years of declining health, barely able to leave his apartment, he began planning his death. On May 7 of this year, Kelly Johnson died after invoking California’s aid-in-dying law.
'No One is Ever Really Ready' Aid-in-Dying Patient Chooses Last Day
Kaiser Health News
By JoNel Aleccia
Last November, doctors told McQ he had six months or less to live. The choice, he said, became not death over a healthy life, but a “certain outcome” now over a prolonged, painful — and “unknowable” — end.

How Do You Want 
to Die?
By Gaye Bennett
This is a very personal question to me. I'm at an age where the thought of my own death cannot be romanticized or fantasized any more. It's a serious matter of which I really wish I had more control over.
Final Exit Network is a national non-profit (501c3) organization serving members throughout the country - in all 50 states. 

Final Exit Network is the only national organization that publicly offers education, support, and a compassionate presence to our members. We provide exit guides throughout the U.S. to those who meet our Medical Committee requirements.

Through the defense of our Exit Guides, we have made significant changes to laws in states where our right to provide services has been challenged. As the U.S. host of the 20th international biennial conference, our support of the World Federation of Right to Die Society's Conference in September 2014 in Chicago highlighted the importance of this significant WORLD movement. 

Many of our members join to promote the right to death with dignity. Others join to support our exit guide volunteers, or to help pay for legal protection for our exit guides.

It is our hope that one day, the right to death-with-dignity will be far more than a phrase, but a right that each one of us may choose to exercise at the end of our lives and, if necessary, at a time of our own choosing.
Maine Adopts Death With Dignity 
Governor Janet Mills has signed the Maine Death with Dignity Act into law.

With the Governor’s signature, Maine became the 9th jurisdiction to allow people with a terminal illness to die the way they want: without suffering, in peace, and with dignity. Nearly 70 million Americans now live in a state with an assisted dying option.

This victory would not be possible without Val Lovelace, the truly fearless leader of Maine Death with Dignity. Her tireless work with legislators, volunteers, and the media; her testimonies, community presentations, and sleepless nights; and her perseverance above all made the difference.

Val said, “I applaud Governor Mills for signing the Death with Dignity Act into law. I am so proud and grateful to finally be heard by our lawmakers and our Governor on this issue. This is an exceptionally historic day for Maine.”  Read More