ATLANTA — Georgia's highest 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 suicide group and could reshape the state's end-of-life policy.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling struck down the 1994 law, which bans people from publicly advertising suicide. It was adopted by lawmakers hoping to prevent right-to-die supporters from offering their services in the state.
The ruling means that four members of the Final Exit Network who were charged in February 2009 with helping a 58-year-old cancer patient die won't have to stand trial. The group, which was once based in Georgia, was at the center of a lengthy investigation by state authorities who infiltrated its operations.
Georgia law doesn't expressly forbid assisted suicide. But the law established felony charges for anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose."
The court's opinion found that lawmakers could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction of free speech, or sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide that were followed by the act. But lawmakers decided to do neither, said the opinion, written by Justice Hugh Thompson.
"The State has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech rights," the ruling said.
Prosecutors who had worked for more than a year to build the case were disappointed with the ruling.
"We knew from the very beginning there would be a constitutional challenge to the statute," said Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn. "We felt there was an argument to be made, made it and the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. I regret we were not able to proceed on the merits because I think we had a compelling case."
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."
The decision left open a route for state lawmakers to explicitly outlaw all assisted suicides, as long as the law doesn't infringe on free speech rights. Legislative leaders haven't ruled out introducing legislation that would do just that, and the Georgia Attorney General's office said it's ready to help lawmakers if they bring forward legislation in response to the ruling.
The challenge was brought by four members of the network who were arrested in February 2009 after John Celmer's death at his home. Prosecutors say group members helped Celmer use an "exit hood" connected to a helium tank to kill himself.
They were arrested after an eight-month investigation by state authorities, in which an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to commit suicide infiltrated the group.
The four pleaded not guilty to charges that they tampered with evidence, violated anti-racketeering laws and helped Celmer kill himself. Their case has been on hold while the Georgia Supreme Court considered their challenge.
The Final Exit Network members said the law only punishes those involved in assisted suicides if they speak publicly about it and does nothing to block an assisted suicide from being carried out by those who stay silent.
State attorneys said the law doesn't infringe on the free speech rights of people who support assisted suicide, but only those who take concrete steps to carry one out. They said the law was designed with the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian in mind. Kevorkian, who died last year at age 83, was a proponent of doctor-assisted suicide and sparked the national right-to-die debate.
Voters in Oregon and Washington have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, and Montana's Supreme Court determined that assisted suicide is a medical treatment. But most other states adopted laws that call for prison time for those found guilty of assisting suicides. Georgia's law carried a punishment of up to five years in prison for those found guilty of violating the law.
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."