Indicted members of an assisted suicide group plead not guilty in north Georgia

By Greg Bluestein, AP
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Members of assisted suicide group plead not guilty

CUMMING, Ga. — Four members of an assisted suicide group pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges they helped a man with cancer kill himself, and asked a judge to strike down the state law used to prosecute them.

The attorneys for the four Final Exit Network members claim the Georgia law bans the group from advertising their services in the state, not assisting in suicides. They contend the law is vague and a violation of free speech rights.

“There’s nothing about the statute that can’t be challenged and everything will be challenged,” said Bruce Harvey, an attorney for former network president Ted Goodwin.

A prosecutor declined comment. Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Dickinson set a June 1 deadline for both sides to file arguments on the issue.

The Final Exit Network members pleaded not guilty to charges that they tampered with evidence, violated the state’s anti-racketeering laws and helped a 58-year-old man with cancer kill himself.

Goodwin and three other members of the network were arrested in February 2009 in John Celmer’s death at his north Georgia home. The arrests came after an eight-month investigation where an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to commit suicide infiltrated the group.

A grand jury this month formally indicted Goodwin, group member Claire Blehr, ex-medical director Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert and regional coordinator Nicholas Alec Sheridan.

Goodwin and Blehr were with Celmer when he died, each holding one of his hands, according to court records. Afterward, investigators said they removed a helium tank and hood Celmer wore to help him suffocate. Investigators said Egbert and Sheridan evaluated him before his death and gave the OK for his suicide.

Authorities said the network has helped dozens of people kill themselves since it was founded in 2004. Some members, including Egbert, also face charges in Arizona in a suicide there.

Final Exit Network leaders said the Georgia-based group helped people with terminal illnesses and those who were suffering but not necessarily dying. Goodwin told The Associated Press in an interview last year that the group has helped nearly 200 people across the country die but never actively assisted suicide.

The group’s attorneys said they are preparing for a trial they hope will exonerate the four members and validate this offshoot of the right-to-die movement.

Jerry Dincin, the group’s new president, said the network hasn’t been involved in any suicides since it was charged but that it is planning a new advertising campaign. The group’s billboards, planned for New Jersey and California, will read: “Good Life. Good Death. Your Choice.”

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