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Assisted suicide case moves forward
Judge rejects motions challenging state law
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Forsyth County News


A Forsyth County Superior Court judge has denied motions filed by attorneys challenging the constitutionality of the assisted suicide charge their clients face.

Judge David L. Dickinson released his decision Wednesday after considering arguments made in a Dec. 10 hearing.

At that time, defense attorneys contented that state law does not prohibit suicide or the assistance of it, but violates free speech. They also filed motions to have the case dismissed.

The defendants – Thomas Goodwin, Claire Blehr, Nicholas Sheridan and Lawrence Egbert – are members of the Marietta-based right to die organization, Final Exit Network Inc.

They were indicted in March 2010 on one count each of offering to assist in the commission of suicide, tampering with evidence and violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.

The charges stem from the June 20, 2008, assisted suicide of 58-year-old Thomas Celmer of Jasmine Court.

Celmer’s death was ruled a homicide, with the cause listed as asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium.

A 29-page affidavit shows that Celmer at one time suffered from cancer but was free of the disease at the time of his death.

Each suspect faces a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

The organization is also charged in the indictment.

Dickinson’s order denies their contention that the statute prohibiting assisted suicide violates their First Amendment right of free speech and that it is vague.

The order goes on to also reject the argument that their equal protection rights were violated.

“In the case at bar, defendants have produced no evidence that the state has treated them any differently than any other person charged under the statute," Dickinson wrote.

His order goes on to note that even if there was evidence of different treatment, “the statute passes constitutional muster because the law is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.”

Attorney Don Samuel, who represents the organization and Egbert, argued in the December hearing against the racketeering charge.

He held the indictment contends Final Exit Network Inc. is an enterprise and that an enterprise cannot be a defendant because it cannot employee itself.

None of the defendants are employees of Final Exit.

The order shows that the prosecution generally agreed that Final Exit Network Inc. cannot be named as both a defendant and an enterprise in a RICO case.

However, the state held that the corporation is the defendant and a different entity, named Final Exit Network, constitutes the enterprise.

Dickinson gave both sides 30 days to submit briefs citing case law and analysis supporting their arguments on this point.

Samuel was out of town Wednesday. Neither he nor Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn could not be reached for comment.

Goodwin said in December that he thought the case could reach the Georgia Supreme Court. The defense filed suit in December in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the assisted suicide statute.

Officials have said the case is Georgia’s first involving assisted suicide. It launched a nationwide investigation into the group’s activities.

Goodwin, who lives in Florida, and Blehr, of Atlanta, were arrested in February 2009, along with Sheridan and Egbert, both of Maryland. Goodwin is identified in the indictment as founder, member and president of Final Exit. Blehr is described as a member and “exit guide.”

Goodwin has said he is no longer president.

The indictment describes Sheridan as a member and Southeast regional coordinator, and Egbert as a member and medical director for the organization.