The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Jeffry Scott
Suicide group members in court Friday in Cumming asking for dismissal
Four members of a suicide group known as the Final Exit Network will be in a Cumming courtroom Friday morning as their high-profile criminal defense attorneys argue the case against them for their alleged roles in the 2008 suicide of a Cumming man should be dismissed.
“We’re going to argue about the constitutionality of the law and that, in effect, they haven’t broken the law and should not be prosecuted,” defense attorney David Wolfe said this week.
Wolfe is joined on the defense team by Bruce Harvey, who worked with Wolfe in defending Gwinnett dentist Barton Corbin, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to murdering his wife and a girlfriend years earlier. Don Samuel, who represented Clifford Harris Jr., better known as the rapper T.I., in his 2009 federal weapons case that ended in a plea deal, is the attorney for the key figure in this case: Dr. Lawrence Egbert.
Egbert, a white-haired, 82-year-old Baltimore anesthesiologist, is the medical director and co-founder of Final Exit network. In that capacity, Egbert has said he approved – though he did not necessarily participate in – about 200 suicides, from 2005 until his arrest in February 2009.
The three others charged with violating Georgia’s RICO Act by conducting an enterprise based on unlawful activities, assisting a suicide and tampering with evidence, are: Thomas “Ted” Goodwin, 64, of Kennesaw and Punta Gorda, Fla.; Claire Blehr, 77, of Atlanta; and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, 61, of Baltimore.
In a court document, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the group crossed the line from advising to assisting in the June 2008 death of 58-year-old John Celmer. He died of asphyxiation after inhaling helium while two Georgia members of the group, Blehr and Goodwin, were present.
The four were arrested after the GBI got a tip and began an undercover operation. A GBI agent posed as a Dawson County man dying of pancreatic cancer and applied for the Final Exit Network’s help.
According to the charges, Goodwin walked the undercover agent through the steps that would have killed him. Goodwin allegedly demonstrated how he would hold down the man’s hands to prohibit him from removing the “exit bag.”
The case made national news, and rekindled the debate about the right to die. Newsweek magazine declared Egbert “The New Doctor Death, ” a reference to right-to-die activist Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who became known as Dr. Death for assisting in suicides. Kevorkian was convicted of second degree murder and served time in prison.
The Final Exit Network’s website promotes “our right to die a peaceful and painless death at the time and place of our choosing.” The group describes taking one’s life as “self deliverance.” But Dr. Egbert told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2009 interview after his arrest that the group never “assists” in ending lives.
“The patient does all the work,” he said. “We do not help. We advise. We have very pointedly said we do not help. It’s illegal. ” Dr. Egbert and the others charged will be in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge David L Dickinson to hear the defense argue motions for dismissal.
Georgia law on assisted suicide is too vague to be enforceable, said defense attorney Rob Rubin, who represents Claire Blehr. His client has said she was present at Celmer’s death.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penndeclined to comment on the particulars of the case. “The state will be prepared to respond tomorrow in court,” she said.