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Indictments for alleged assisted suicide

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POSTED: March 9, 2010 12:43 p.m.
ATLANTA - A Georgia grand jury indicted four members of an assisted suicide group Tuesday on charges they helped a 58-year-old man with cancer kill himself.

The four - the Final Exit Network's former president, its former medical director and two others - were formally indicted by a Forsyth County grand jury on charges of offering assistance in the commission of suicide, tampering with evidence and violating the state's anti-racketeering charges.

They were arrested more than a year ago and charged with assisted suicide 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 suicide infiltrated the group.

Authorities say the network, which was also indicted, has helped dozens of people kill themselves. Some members already faced charges in a suicide in Arizona.

Tuesday's indictment names former network president Thomas E. Goodwin, ex-medical director Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, regional coordinator Nicholas Alec Sheridan, and member Claire Blehr.

The four are scheduled to be arraigned April 1, said Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn.

The group and its attorneys have long argued members never actively assisted with suicide, just guided people through the process.

"We've been working on this case for a year," said defense attorney Don Samuel, who represents Egbert and the network. "We're confident in our defense and we expect a very favorable outcome."

Other defense attorneys did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

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 say Egbert and Sheridan evaluated him before his death and gave the OK for his suicide.

The network bases its work on "The Final Exit," a best-selling suicide manual by British author Derek Humphry. Network members are instructed to buy two new helium tanks and a hood, known as an "exit bag," according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In court papers, investigators said the organization recommends helium because it is undetectable during an autopsy.

The case highlighted a rift in the right-to-die movement. Final Exit Network leaders say the group helped not only people with terminal illnesses, but also those who were suffering but not necessarily dying.

Goodwin told The Associated Press in an interview last year that the organization's leaders believed that people with just months to live aren't the only ones who should be able to seek help committing suicide.

"These people who are terminally ill are blessed in a small way - there's a finite time for their suffering," said Goodwin, who stepped down as president after his arrest. "But there are many, many people who are doomed to suffer interminably for years. And why should they not receive our support as well?"

Critics within the right-to-die movement, including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, have said people should be able to seek assistance ending their lives, but only from doctors and only if they are terminally ill.

Georgia authorities say Celmer was making a remarkable recovery from cancer when the network sent exit guides to his home to show him how to suffocate himself using helium tanks and a plastic hood. And police say that in 2007, the group helped an Arizona woman named Jana Van Voorhis who was depressed but not terminally ill.

Goodwin, who is not a physician and founded the group in 2004 after his father died of emphysema, said the network helped guide nearly 200 people across the country die to but never actively assisted suicide. He said he was personally involved in 39 deaths.


 

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