The Georgia Supreme Court concluded Monday that a state law restricting assisted suicides violated free speech rights, a ruling that destroyed a long-running criminal case against members of a Forsyth County suicide group.
A Forsyth County grand jury indicted the Final Exit Network and four of its members — Thomas Goodwin, Lawrence Egbert, Nicholas Sheridan and Claire Blehr - in March 2010 on charges of offering to assist in the commission of a suicide, tampering with evidence and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
They pleaded not guilty a month later to the charges, which stemmed from the 2008 death of 58-year-old John Celmer of Jasmine Court in Cumming.
Celmer's death was ruled a homicide, with the cause listed as asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium.
According to court documents, Celmer at one time suffered from cancer but was free of the disease at the time of his death.
Final Exit sought the higher court's opinion after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson in April denied its contention that the statute violates their First Amendment right of free speech.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said Monday the higher court's decision is "disappointing."
"We knew that from the very beginning that this was going to be a challenge, at least in terms of the constitutionality of the statute; we were prepared for that," Penn said.
She added that prosecutors had hoped to see the case past the constitutionality issue.
"We had a good argument to make, and I think it was worth making and worth doing this in spite of the outcome," she said.
The suicide group's members said they saw the court's decision as vindication.
"This was politically motivated and ideologically driven as opposed to being, in any way, motivated by sound legal practice," said Ted Goodwin, the group's former president and one of the four defendants. "I'm just sorry that as many people have been put through what they've been put through in what turned out to be a boondoggle."
Penn said the case will be turned back over to the local Superior Court's jurisdiction, where it will then be formally dismissed.
"All of the charges are based on the first count, which is the assisted suicide statute," she said. "It's no longer valid, so none of the others are."
According to the Georgia Supreme Court's opinion, written by Justice Hugh Thompson, the statute criminalizes only those assisted suicides that include a public advertisement or offer to assist.
"This distinction takes the statute out of the realm of content neutral regulations and renders it a selective restraint on speech with a particular content," Thompson wrote.
The opinion refers to the state's argument that the statute is narrowly tailored "because it reaches only those who publicly offer to assist in suicide and then, in fact, undertake an overt act to accomplish that goal."
"Had the state truly been interested in the preservation of human life, however, it could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech whatsoever," Thompson wrote.
The opinion goes on to say that the state could have sought to prohibit all offers of assisted suicide when accompanied by an overt act to succeed, but did neither.
Opponents of assisted suicide measures said they are concerned the court's ruling could open Georgia to more assisted suicides.
"I think it will be seen as fertile ground for groups that have spearheaded assisted suicide movements," said Rita Marker, executive director of the Patients Rights Council, an advocacy group that opposes assisted suicide measures. "And from the standpoint of vulnerable patients, this is not a good thing."
Associated Press contributed to this story