Minnesota Case: Final Exit Network Found Guilty
Of a Crime For Showing Compassion
HASTINGS, Minnesota, May 14 — 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 immediately 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 cannon 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, “advising” 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 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 has not protected 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 open 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.”