By STEVE KARNOWSKI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A Minnesota law banning the offering of advice or encouragement about how to commit suicide is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech, the state appeals court ruled Monday.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals was hailed as a "grand slam" victory by Robert Rivas, an attorney for the Final Exit Network. Two members of the national right-to-die group are charged in the 2007 suicide of Doreen Dunn, a 57-year-old Apple Valley woman who had suffered from chronic pain for more than a decade.
Prosecutors "don't have one scintilla of evidence from the scene" to support the charges that the two Final Exit Network members assisted in Dunn's suicide, Rivas said.
Monday's ruling, which noted that the constitutionality of state's ban on actively assisting in someone else's suicide is already settled, sends the case back to Dakota County District Court. But Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he'll ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision.
Both Backstrom and Rivas agreed it conflicts with a Court of Appeals ruling in another closely watched case that's testing the same set of Minnesota laws against assisting suicide. Former nurse William Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, hunted for suicidal people in online chat rooms and encouraged them to kill themselves. A British man and a Canadian woman who communicated with him took their own lives in 2005 and 2008, respectively. Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in 2011 of assisting them. The Court of Appeals ruled last year that his actions were not protected speech, but Monday's decision came from a different three-judge panel.
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A Supreme Court ruling in Melchert-Dinkel's case is pending. Backstrom said he hopes the high court takes the Final Exit Network case into account as it decides the Melchert-Dinkel case. But he also said his office has enough evidence, regardless, to proceed against the group and the two members on the remaining charges of assisting suicide and interfering with a death scene.
Prosecutors say Dunn committed suicide by inhaling helium to asphyxiate herself, and that two Final Exit Network members traveled to Minnesota that day to help her and dispose of the equipment she used. No evidence of suicide was found in her home. Her autopsy listed her cause of death as heart disease, and authorities didn't determine she committed suicide until a separate Georgia investigation into the Final Exit Network linked the group to her death.
Two other members were also named in the 2012 indictment, but a lower court in March dismissed the charges against the group's former president, and the other defendant died of cancer a few days later. The charges still stand against the group's medical director, Lawrence Egbert, of Baltimore, and Roberta Massey, of Bear, Del.
The appeals court said in a footnote to Monday's opinion that the ruling affirming Melchert-Dinkel's conviction had only "minimal precedential value" to this case. And because the court designated Monday's decision as "unpublished," it does not set a binding precedent.