ATLANTA – Georgia's top court on Monday struck down a state law designed to discourage assisted suicides after a legal battle brought by four members of a suicide group who said the law also violated free speech rights.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling concludes the 1994 state law "restricts speech in violation of the free speech clauses" of the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.
The court's opinion held that Georgia only criminalized assisted suicides that include a public offering to assist. It said the law didn't expressly prohibit assisted suicides, meaning some were legal in Georgia.
The opinion, penned by Justice Hugh Thompson, said lawmakers could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech, or it could forbid all offers to assist in suicide that are followed by the act. But lawmakers decided to do neither, the ruling 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.
The court's decision means the members of the Final Exit Network who challenged the law after they were charged in February 2009 with helping a 58-year-old cancer-stricken man die, won't have to stand trial, said attorney Don Samuel, who represents one of the defendants.
"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."
State attorneys said they are reviewing the order and considering their options.
Defense attorneys said the law violates First Amendment rights because it bans people from publicly speaking about assisted suicide. Prosecutors said the law applies only to those who follow through on their talk by helping someone die.
At issue is a 1994 Georgia law that makes it a felony for anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself or herself 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."
At oral arguments in November, prosecutors said the law doesn't infringe on the free speech rights of people who support assisted suicide — only those who take concrete steps to carry one out. They said Georgia law doesn't even ban assisted suicide as long as it's not being publicly advertised.
Defense attorneys countered that lawmakers should have adopted a law specifically outlawing assisted suicide if the government was interested in preventing it. They said the law punishes only those involved in assisted suicides if they speak publicly about it, but does nothing to block one from being carried out by others who stay silent.
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.
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 asked a Forsyth County judge in December to dismiss the charges on free speech grounds. State attorneys said the law was aimed at preventing assisted suicides from the likes of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the late physician who sparked the national right-to-die debate.
The judge rejected the defendants' request in April, ruling that "pure speech is in no way chilled or limited by the law," sending the case on fast-track to the Georgia Supreme Court. Monday's ruling could help reshape the state's end-of-life policy, as well as determine the future of the criminal case against the four, which has been on hold.
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