ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Rejecting its First Amendment challenge, a Minnesota appeals court unanimously ruled that a right-to-die advocacy group violated state law when it helped a 57-year-old woman commit suicide.
Final Exit Network Inc., a self-proclaimed right-to-die group based in Georgia, appealed a felony conviction after it was found guilty in May 2015 of helping the woman take her own life. The group was sentenced to pay a $30,000 fine plus funeral expenses, according to the Associated Press.
The case stems from Final Exit’s assistance in the suicide of 57-year-old D.D., who suffered from chronic pain from 1996 until her death in May 2007, according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ 18-page opinion filed Monday.
D.D. applied for a Final Exit membership and then requested “exit services” from the group in January 2007, court records show.
“One week before D.D. committed suicide in May, D.D.’s guide traveled to Minneapolis and drove to D.D.’s home. On the day of the suicide, Final Exit’s medical director and D.D.’s guide flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and drove to D.D.’s home,” the ruling states. “The necessary equipment for helium asphyxiation was in her living room when they arrived. Neither the medical director nor the guide touched the equipment. As testified to by the medical director, if D.D. had not connected the helium tanks and hood properly, they would have advised her on how to correct the mistake.”
“When she was ready, D.D. placed the hood on her head and turned the valves to the helium tank. D.D. died at approximately 12:30 p.m. The medical director checked D.D.’s pulse after the procedure to ensure that she had died. The medical director and guide removed the hood from D.D., left D.D.’s home, and disposed of the equipment in a dumpster. D.D. had requested that the exit guides dispose of the equipment to avoid the stigma of suicide,” the opinion continued.
Final Exit asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reverse its conviction, arguing that a state law making it a crime for a person to intentionally assist another in taking the other’s life is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The group also sought to invalidate State v. Melchert-Dinkel, a case in which the Minnesota Supreme Court held in 2014 that one could be convicted of assisting in a suicide for communicating words that enabled a suicide.
During the trial in Dakota County District Court, evidence showed that Final Exit provided no physical assistance to D.D. in her death, but only advised her. The group told D.D. which book to read about its preferred inhalation method and explained how to hook up the helium tanks properly.
However, the district court’s jury instructions followed the Melchert-Dinkel decision, and required the jury to find “either physical conduct or words that were specifically directed at [D.D.] and that the conduct or words, enabled [D.D.] to take her own life,” according to the appeals court ruling.
Final Exit asserted an as-applied challenge to the jury instructions and to the application of the statute to the facts of its case.
On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected Final Exit’s overbreadth challenge to the district court’s jury instructions because the instructions properly used the language in Melchert-Dinkel. It also affirmed the group’s conviction, finding it has no authority to overrule the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“None of the facts in this case alters the state’s compelling interest as found by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Melchert-Dinkel,” Judge Tracy M. Smith wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. “The state has a compelling interest in the preservation of D.D.’s life and the prevention of her suicide, regardless of her incurable condition. The fact that Final Exit provides its services only to members with incurable conditions does not negate the state’s compelling interest.”
The appeals court rejected Final Exit’s First Amendment challenge to the state law.
“The statute does not prohibit Final Exit’s policy advocacy for the right to die or the emotional support it provides its members by listening to their stories. But Final Exit was not convicted for speech ‘tangential to the act of suicide.’ Final Exit was convicted for ‘instructing another on suicide methods,’” Smith wrote. “The statute therefore did not prevent Final Exit ‘from expressing [its] ideas and messages in a number of other forums and ways.’”
Final Exit Network President Janis Landis said in a statement that the Minnesota Court of Appeals “was just one step on the appellate ladder.”
“Whether we won or lost in this court, we always knew the case would have to go to the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and maybe beyond,” Landis said. “So now we’ll step up to the next court. We’re in this to stay until we obtain justice.”