HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — A grand jury is expected to hear evidence this week about the involvement of a national assisted suicide group in the death of a Minnesota woman in 2007.
Apple Valley resident Doreen Dunn, then 57, suffered through a decade of intense, chronic pain before she reached out to the New Jersey-based Final Exit Network. She used helium and a plastic bag to suffocate herself in May 2007, said Robert Rivas, a Florida attorney representing the group. He said he believes four members are now at risk of indictment.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom issued a statement Monday confirming his office is investigating Final Exit Network and that he will be convening a grand jury.
“This investigation is complex as it involves a non-Minnesota corporation. … When further information becomes public concerning this investigation, we will share it with media outlets,” Backstrom said.
The prosecutor’s spokeswoman, Monica Jensen, said Tuesday they had no further comment beyond the statement.
Final Exit Network is run by volunteers and serves U.S. residents who “are suffering from intolerable medical circumstances, are mentally competent, want to end their lives,” according to its website.
The group, founded in 2005, claims 3,000 members nationwide. Volunteers have offered information to hundreds of people with terminal or irreversible conditions, said Wendell Stephenson, the group’s president and a philosophy instructor at Fresno City College in California.
Rivas said the Dakota County case is expected to hinge on a Minnesota law that prohibits aiding, advising or encouraging a suicide.
While Rivas contends the state law is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of speech by preventing the group from educating people on how to commit suicide, a ruling is expected within the next couple of months on a challenge to the statute. The state Court of Appeals heard oral arguments last month in the case of an ex-nurse who stalked online suicide chat rooms and was convicted of encouraging two depressed people to kill themselves.
Rivas said network volunteers act within the law because they don’t provide equipment or physically participate in suicides, only offering information and support, sometimes by being present during the suicide. He said the group does not encourage anyone to kill themselves.
“We are in accordance with the First Amendment in everything we do,” Stephenson said.
However, the volunteers may run afoul of a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to tamper with a body. Rivas said network volunteers will remove evidence of a suicide if requested, but he did not know if they did so for Dorn.
Dunn submitted a handwritten “exit request” in to the network in January 2007, writing that she was “living with unbearable, excruciating chronic pain that has spread throughout my whole body since 12/96. … Have fought the good fight for 10 yr. to try & get better but it is futile and without an exit will be left in some nursing home in unbearable pain for who knows how many years.”
She also submitted a note from her doctor, released by the network Monday, that said she was disabled and suffered from multiple painful conditions, some related to a 1996 medical procedure.
The Last Exit Network requires a determination that someone suffers from an incurable and chronic — but not necessarily terminal — condition and is mentally competent. Once that happens, the group offers an “exit guide” and meetings with volunteers who will attend, but not assist in, a suicide if requested, Rivas said. Two volunteers traveled to Minnesota the day Dunn died, but Rivas said he did not know whether they were present when she died.
Dunn did not want her family, including her estranged husband, to be aware of her plan, Rivas said.
An autopsy concluded Dunn died of coronary artery disease and noted that she had suffered from chronic pain. It did not list her death as a suicide.
Dakota County authorities began investigating Dunn’s death after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to other law enforcement agencies in 2009 about a criminal case there. Charges against four Last Exist Network members arrested in Georgia were dismissed after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in February that the state’s ban on suicide assistance ads was an unconstitutional restriction on speech.
Last year in Arizona, a jury found the network’s medical director not guilty of conspiring to assist in a suicide. The jury deadlocked in the case of an exit guide accused of assisting and conspiring to assist in the same suicide. Two other volunteers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
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