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High court gets assisted suicide case
Stems from local mans death
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Forsyth County News

In connection with a local case, the Georgia Supreme Court is expected next week to review the constitutionality of the state’s ban on assisted suicide.

Attorneys for members of the Final Exit Network appealed to the higher court after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson in April denied their contention that the statute violates their First Amendment right of free speech and is vague.

Dickinson heard arguments in the matter in December.

A hearing has been scheduled for Monday morning before the state Supreme Court in Atlanta.

The organization and four of its members — Thomas Goodwin, Claire Blehr, Nicholas Sheridan and Lawrence Egbert — have been charged in connection with the 2008 death of 58-year-old John Celmer of Jasmine Court in Cumming.

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

According to court documents, Celmer at one time suffered from cancer but was free of the disease at the time of his death.

The defendants pleaded not guilty in April 2010 to charges of offering to assist in the commission of a suicide, tampering with evidence and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.

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

A brief filed in Georgia Supreme Court on the defendants’ behalf asserts that state law does not prohibit assistance in suicide.

According to the document, "Anyone in Georgia may assist others in suicide so long as he does not make a public statement about it first."

It goes on to say the law is a content-based restriction on speech "because it makes certain specific statements — the public advertising, offering, or holding out — an element of a crime."

The defendants ask the high court to find the law unconstitutional and send the case back to Forsyth County Superior Court for dismissal of the indictments.

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

Goodwin is listed in the indictment as founder, member and president of Final Exit, though he has since said he is no longer president.

Blehr is identified in the document as a member and "exit guide."

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

Sheridan is described in the indictment as a member and Southeast regional coordinator while Egbert is listed as a member and medical director for the organization.