HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — Prosecutors said Monday they'll prove that a national right-to-die group assisted in the 2007 suicide of a 57-year-old Minnesota woman who suffered from years of chronic pain and showed signs of depression.
Final Exit Network Inc. is charged with helping Doreen Dunn to die and interfering with a death scene. If convicted, the group faces a maximum fine of $33,000, defense attorney Robert Rivas said.
Dakota County prosecutor Elizabeth Swank told jurors in her opening statement that evidence will show two members of Final Exit Network went to Dunn's home in Apple Valley, helped her commit suicide, then removed equipment she used to inhale helium to asphyxiate herself so that it appeared she had died of natural causes.
Dunn's husband of 29 years arrived home on May 30, 2007, to find her dead on the couch. Swank said Dunn had a blanket pulled up to her neck with her hands folded on her chest.
Swank said despite Dunn's pain and depression, she had no life-threatening illness and her family was puzzled by her death. There were good things happening in her life: Her daughter who had been in Africa for about a year was coming home the next day and her son's fiancee was scheduled to give birth that week. However, her husband was also planning to move out, the prosecutor said.
Rivas said Final Exit Network does not dispute that Dunn killed herself or that she was a member. He also acknowledged that two "exit guides" from the group, Jerry Dincin and Dr. Larry Egbert, sat with Dunn as she died. But he said the state has no proof the men assisted in her death.
Dincin has died and a criminal case against him was dismissed; Egbert is charged but has been offered immunity for his testimony in the trial against the group.
Rivas said the group supports the right of people to choose to die when they reasonably believe their time has come. He said the group, which is incorporated in Georgia, also believes a person shouldn't have to die alone.
"They would offer education, information, emotional support but they would carefully stop short of assisting a suicide," he said. He said a small number of Final Exit's thousands of members actually contemplate suicide.
To convict the group, the state must prove Dunn took her life with its help, either through Final Exit Network's speech or actions. Authorities didn't determine Dunn killed herself until a Georgia investigation linked the group to her death years later.
The Minnesota Supreme Court last year ruled that speech isn't considered assisting when someone is just sharing a viewpoint or providing support, but can be assisting if it's aimed at giving a specific person instructions on how to end his or her life.
The group's former president, Thomas Goodwin, testified Monday about Final Exit Network's policies for accepting people who qualify for "exit services" and talked about its recommended method of suicide — helium asphyxiation. Goodwin said people who want to kill themselves must buy and set up the equipment themselves. He said an exit guide would be there when the person died for comfort but also in case the person jerked during the dying process and tore off the hood used to breathe in helium. If the hood tore, he said, the exit guide would ensure the death was not "botched."
Goodwin also testified that exit guides would remove the equipment after the death.