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Court strikes down Georgia's assisted-suicide law

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

— The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down the state's assisted-suicide law, finding it violates the free speech clauses of the Georgia and U.S. Constitutions.

The court's ruling means that four members of the Final Exit Network do not have to stand trial on felony charges in Forsyth County. They were charged in connection with the 2008 suicide of 58-year-old John Celmer, who killed himself two years after he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The state Legislature passed the law in 1994 to punish people like the late Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist known as "Dr. Death" and who died in June. He catapulted to fame in the early 1990s by overseeing the suicides of more than 100 people, prompting a number of states to criminalize assisted suicide.

Georgia's law made 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." The crime carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Justice Hugh Thompson, writing for the court Monday, noted that the law only criminalizes those assisted suicides that include a public advertisement or offer to assist. Many assisted suicides are either not prohibited or expressly exempted, and the law does not render illegal all advertisements or offers to assist in a suicide, he added.

"Had the state truly been interested in the preservation of human life ... it could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech whatsoever," the ruling said. "Alternatively, the state could have sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide when accompanied by an overt act to accomplish that goal. The state here did neither."

The state also 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," Thompson wrote. For this reason, the state may not make the public advertisement or offer a criminal offense, the ruling said.

In 2010, a Forsyth grand jury indicted Ted Goodwin, Final Exit's former president; anaesthesiologist Lawrence Egbert, who co-founded the group; regional coordinator Nicholas Alex Sheridan; and group member Claire Blehr.

They were charged with violating the assisted-suicide law, racketeering and tampering with evidence. Forsyth prosecutors have said that if the suicide law is struck down, the entire case would have to be dismissed.