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Final Exit: Group That Helps Suffering People Commit Suicide Is Active in Florida

When Boca Raton Police Officer Lora McHugh entered Sandra Snow's bedroom around 4:30 p.m. on July 22, 2008, she found the plump 62-year-old lying face up on the bed, a green blanket pulled to her neck. Snow was dead.

The officer checked for signs of foul play but found none. Snow's nephew, a 49-year-old realtor named Jeffery, said he'd discovered his aunt's body just 15 minutes before, when he'd arrived to take her car in for service.

Jeffery dialed a number and handed the phone to McHugh. Snow's doctor advised that Sandra hadn't been in good health. He offered to sign the death certificate. The cop hung up and concluded in her report, "Apparent cause of death was natural causes."

But the truth was far more complicated. It involved lies, secrecy, a tank of helium, and something called an "exit hood" that would lead to suicide.

A year later, authorities connected Snow's death to a little-known assisted-suicide group called Final Exit that has 30-year-old roots tracing to California journalist Derek Humphry. In 1991, Humphry published a bestselling manual that not only considered the ethics of suicide but included instructions on how best to do it.

Humphry founded the nation's best-known assisted-suicide group -- the Hemlock Society -- which would eventually fracture, with some members going on to found Final Exit. It made headlines throughout the 1990s, at the same time as "Dr. Death," Jack Kevorkian, who spent eight years in jail and assisted in 130 suicides. The issue came back into focus last month when the Belgian Senate ignited controversy by approving euthanasia for terminally ill kids under age 18.

Most states have provisions against "aiding" or "assisting" in a suicide, though several allow physician-assisted suicides for terminally ill patients. Florida law holds that "every person deliberately assisting another in the commission of self-murder shall be guilty of manslaughter, a felony of the second degree."

"Final Exit Network never encourages anyone to self-deliver," says Robert Rivas, the Tallahassee-based attorney for Final Exit. People who apply for assistance, he says, are "screened very carefully" by the group's medical committee. They need not be diagnosed with a terminal illness but must be deemed to have "no hope." Those individuals are accepted and assigned two exit guides, who "give information... and moral support," Rivas says.

Criminal statutes, he asserts, are applicable only if a volunteer were to physically help a person die -- like "crush a pill or hand them a drink." Yet "some prosecutors in some states still think [what we do] is illegal assistance," Rivas says.

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Deirdra Funcheon

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