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Attorneys: Suicide law unconstitutional
Judge hears motions in right-to-die case
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Forsyth County News


Attorneys for four people accused of helping a Cumming man end his life in 2008 have challenged the constitutionality of the assisted suicide charge they face.

The attorneys made their arguments over three hours Friday before Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson.

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

All four were indicted in March 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 are in connection with 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, who at one time suffered from cancer, was free of the disease at the time of his death.

The case is thought to be Georgia's first involving assisted suicide and has launched a nationwide investigation into the group's activities.

The organization is also charged in the indictment.

Dickinson did not indicate Friday when he would make a decision on the motions, saying only that he would notify the attorneys.

During the hearing, attorney Bob Rubin argued that the state law does not prohibit suicide or the assistance of it, but does violate free speech.

"The statute only prohibits the expression of ideas surrounding the assistance of suicide," said Rubin, who represents Blehr.

He went on to say that Final Exit's purpose is to provide information to those who wish to end their own lives.

"As a society we need to be able to discuss end-of-life decisions," he said. "The information put out on the Web site discusses exactly that."

Robert Rivas, who also represents the network, said the statute is "incoherent" and cannot be enforced.

District Attorney Penny Penn countered that the law prohibits conduct, not speech.

"You do have some element of speech, but it's also looked at in conjunction with conduct," Penn said of the statute.

Penn agreed there were two interpretations of the statute, but disputed whether the arguments made by opposing counsel were reasonable.

Attorney Don Samuel, who represents the organization and Egbert, challenged the racketeering charge of the indictment.

The indictment contends Final Exit Network Inc. is an enterprise, but Samuel said an enterprise cannot be a defendant because it cannot employ itself.

All four defendants attended the hearing and sat among supporters.

Goodwin said he felt the case could land before the Georgia Supreme Court, noting the defense filed suit late Thursday in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the assisting suicide statute.

Fran Schindler, a member of the network, said she thought the hearing went well.

"I am here from North Carolina because I support my fellow members and because I believe an individual has the right to make the choice to end their life if they're mentally competent and have a fatal illness," Schindler said.

Marion Scoular of Duluth echoed her fellow member's sentiments.

"We're here because we feel so strongly that the option to die with dignity should be everyone's right," Scoular said.

Goodwin, who lives in Florida, and Blehr, of Atlanta, were arrested in February 2009 along with Sheridan and Egbert, both of Maryland.

The indictment identifies Goodwin as founder, member and president of Final Exit and describes Blehr as a member and "exit guide."

Goodwin said Friday 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.

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