Two members of an assisted suicide ring are willing to travel to Georgia to face charges that they helped a 58-year-old man kill himself, an attorney said Friday as they appeared in court in Baltimore.
Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert and Nicholas Alex Sheridan, wearing bright yellow jumpsuits, smiled and waved to about a dozen supporters in the courtroom before asking a judge to release them on bond so they could travel to Georgia themselves to face charges. They waived their right to an extradition hearing. The case has revived a long-simmering debate about the right to die.
"These are not people who are running from justice, these are people who want justice," defense attorney Michael Kaminkow told a judge.
Egbert is the Final Exit Network's medical director and Sheridan is a regional coordinator. They and two other network members were arrested Wednesday and charged with assisted suicide in the death of John Celmer last June at his home near Atlanta.
Investigators say the organization may have been involved in as many as 200 other deaths around the United States, and say the group advocated a suicide technique using helium, which cannot be detected in an autopsy, and "exit bags" placed over the head.
Kaminkow, citing the 82-year-old Egbert's high blood pressure, told Judge Jeannie J. Hong that his clients were not in Georgia when Celmer killed himself. Hong said she could not release the men, but promised to speed the extradition and said she would reconisder if Georgia says the men can travel to the state on their own.
Egbert's wife, Ellen Barfield, said outside the courtroom that the case is part of a nationwide crackdown on assisted suicide and is bringing needed attention to the issue. She says, however, that her husband is not guilty of any crime.
"They were helping desperate people," she said. "But it's not assisted suicide, all they do is talk."
Voters in Oregon and Washington have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, and a district judge in Montana ruled in December that such suicides are legal there, though the state Supreme Court could overturn that decision. Most other states have stiff penalties for those found guilty of assisting suicide. People convicted of assisting in suicide in Georgia can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
Georgia began investigating the Final Exit Network shortly after Celmer died of suffocation due to inhalation in June. Celmer's mother says he had suffered for years from cancer, but authorities say he had recovered and was embarrassed about his appearance following surgeries.
Group members say they do not actively aid suicides but rather support and guide those who decide to end their lives on their own, telling them how to suffocate themselves using helium and hoods known as exit bags.
Thomas E. Goodwin, the group's president, and Claire Blehr were both arrested Wednesday in metro Atlanta. A court appearance set for Friday was delayed after they were released from jail overnight on $66,000 bond each, authorities said.
According to court documents in the case, Blehr detailed each step of the process to an undercover agent who infiltrated the group claiming to be interested in committing suicide.
Blehr told the agent that he would place the hood on top of his own head, like a shower cap, and then inflate it by turning on the helium tank. After a few breaths, she told him the "lights would go out."
The guides would then let the helium tanks run for 20 minutes after they last felt his pulse to make sure he was dead. They would also stand by his side to ensure he didn't pull the bag off his head, according to the documents.
Jerry Dincin, the Final Exit Network's vice president, disputed the claims made in court documents.
"That's nonsense," Dincin said Friday. "We hold your hand because we feel a compassionate presence means you hold someone's hand. They need to be with someone in their last minutes. No one pulls off any hood. This method is so quick and so sure and so painless."