ATLANTA – Georgia's top court struck down a state law that restricted assisted suicides, siding on Monday with four members of a suicide group who said the law violated their free speech rights.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling found that the law violates the free speech clauses of the U.S. and Georgia constitution. It means that four members of the Final Exit Network who were charged in February 2009 with helping a 58-year-old cancer-stricken man die won't have to stand trial, defense attorneys said.
Georgia law doesn't expressly forbid assisted suicide. But lawmakers in 1994 adopted a law that bans people from publicly advertising suicide, hoping to prevent assisted suicide from the likes of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the late physician who sparked the national right-to-die debate.
The law makes it a felony for anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose."
The court's opinion, written by Justice Hugh Thompson, found that lawmakers could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction of free speech, or sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide that were followed by the act. But lawmakers decided to do neither, he said.
"The state has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech rights," the ruling said.
State attorneys said they were reviewing the order. The network's members said they were thrilled with the decision.
"This was politically motivated and ideologically driven as opposed to being, in any way, motivated by sound legal practice," said Ted Goodwin, the group's former president and one of the four defendants. "I'm just sorry that as many people have been put through what they've been put through in what turned out to be a boondoggle."
The challenge was brought by four members of the network who were arrested in February 2009 after John Celmer's death at his north Georgia home. They were arrested after an eight-month investigation by state authorities, in which an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to commit suicide infiltrated the group. Prosecutors say group members helped Celmer use an "exit hood" connected to a helium tank to kill himself.
A grand jury in March 2010 indicted Goodwin, group member Claire Blehr, ex-medical director Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert and regional coordinator Nicholas Alec Sheridan. The four pleaded not guilty to charges that they tampered with evidence, violated anti-racketeering laws and helped the man kill himself, and their case has been on hold while the Georgia Supreme Court considered their challenge.
The four hired a host of well-known defense attorneys, who challenged the law in court. They claimed lawmakers should have adopted a law specifically outlawing assisted suicide if the government was interested in preventing it. Instead, they said, the law only punishes those involved in assisted suicides if they speak publicly about it and does nothing to block one from being carried out by those who stay silent.
State attorneys said the law doesn't infringe on the free speech rights of people who support assisted suicide, but only those who take concrete steps to carry one out.
Voters in Oregon and Washington have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, and Montana's Supreme Court determined that assisted suicide is a medical treatment. But most other states adopted laws that call for prison time for those found guilty of assisting suicides. Georgia's law carried a punishment of up to five years in prison for those found guilty of assisting in suicide.
Opponents of assisted suicide measures said they are concerned the court's ruling could open Georgia to more assisted suicides.
"I think it will be seen as fertile ground for groups that have spearheaded assisted suicide movements," said Rita Marker, executive director of Patients Rights Council, an advocacy group that opposes assisted suicide measures. "And from the standpoint of vulnerable patients, this is not a good thing."