Four people accused of helping a Cumming man end his life in 2008 pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday morning.
The Final Exit Network and four of its members were each indicted last month by a grand jury on charges of offering to assist in the commission of a suicide and tampering with evidence.
They are also charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.
Thomas Goodwin, 64, Claire Blehr, 77, Nicholas Sheridan, 61, and Lawrence Egbert, 82, appeared Thursday in Forsyth County Superior Court.
Each faces a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Goodwin, who lives in Kennesaw and Florida, and Atlanta resident Blehr were arrested in February 2009 in connection with the assisted suicide of 58-year-old Thomas Celmer of Forsyth County.
Sheridan and Egbert, both of Maryland, were also arrested in connection with Celmer’s death on June 20, 2008.
The indictment identifies Goodwin as a founder, member and president of Final Exit.
It describes Blehr as a member and “exit guide;” Sheridan as a member and Southeast regional coordinator; and Egbert as a member and medical director for the organization.
Attorneys representing them said they have already filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the assisted suicide charge.
“There is nothing about that statute that won’t be challenged,” said Bruce Harvey, Goodwin’s attorney.
Sheridan’s attorney, David Wolfe, said there is no law in Georgia prohibiting suicide, and the statute on assisted suicide is vague.
“Even the definitions written in the statute to clarify it make it ambiguous,” he said.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson is expected to issue an order giving both sides until June 1 to file motions in the case.
Hearings could be scheduled after that, she said.
Derek Humphry, founder of the now-defunct Hemlock Society USA and author of the book “Final Exit” flew to Forsyth County from Oregon for the arraignment.
He is also chairman of the Final Exit Network’s advisory board.
“It’s going to turn out to be a triumph for the right-to-die movement,” he said of the case. “At last we’ll get some clear decision even if it means going to the Supreme Court.”
Humphry said the court case is needed so the right-to-die issue can be dealt with publicly.
The case, believed to be Georgia’s first involving assisted suicide, has launched a nationwide investigation into the group’s activities.
According to a 29-page affidavit, Celmer’s death was ruled asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium and listed as a homicide.