Final Exit Network suicide group acquittal resonates in Georgia case

Attorneys for four members of a group that calls itself the Final Exit Network who, according to Georgia prosecutors, helped a Cumming man commit suicide in 2009, said an acquittal Thursday in a similar case in Phoenix could sway the outcome of the Georgia case.

“I think it has a huge impact on the Georgia case,” said attorney Don Samuel, whose client, Dr. Lawrence Egbert, an 82-year-old Baltimore anesthesiologist, medical director and co-founder of the group, was found not guilty after a three-week Arizona trial. He was charged withassisting in the April 15, 2007, death of a Phoenix woman, Jana Van Voorhis.

“The jury found that Dr. Egbert, by what he did, was not to assist in suicide by any reasonable definition of the word ‘assist,’" said Samuel. The attorney said Egbert’s involvement in the Phoenix case is the same as it was in the Georgia case.

“Dr. Egbert never went to Arizona and he never went to Forsyth County,” said Samuel.

Egbert said in a 2009 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that from 2005 to 2009, he had approved of about 200 suicides after consultations.

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"The patient does all the work," he said. "We do not help. We advise. We have very pointedly said we do not help. It's illegal."

The Phoenix verdict came a day after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Dickinson rejected a defense attorney’s free-speech challenge in the Georgia case in which Egbert and three others are defendants.

Georgia law 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." It sets a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

"The court understands that defendants contend that the statute criminalizes only speech," Dickinson wrote in his 13-page ruling. "However, the court finds that the statute requires both speech and an overt act in furtherance of assisting in the suicide."

The four members of the network were arrested in February 2009 after 58-year-old John Celmer's death at his Cumming home, following an eight-month investigation by state authorities that included an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to commit suicide.

A grand jury in March 2010 indicted Dr. Egbert; Ted Goodwin, the group's former president; group member Claire Blehr; 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.

Both cases have been closely watched by right-to-die advocates. A 2010 Newsweek story declared Dr. Egbert as the “New Doctor Death,” heir apparent to right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian, who served eight years in prison for second-degree murder.

Attorney David Wolfe, on the defense team with Samuel, said Friday they are asking the Georgia Supreme Court to review Dickinson’s ruling before the case proceeds in Forsyth. He said prosecutors in the case have agreed to ask the Georgia high court to review the constitutionality of the law before going to trial.

“The Phoenix case does give you some insight about what potential jurors might think about this case if it gets before a jury in Georgia,” said Wolfe. “It was a great victory.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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