A Minnesota man who once trolled the Internet disguised as a “depressed” female nurse was improperly convicted of encouraging others to commit suicide, the state’s highest court has ruled.
In a 27-page opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court described how the man, William Melchert-Dinkel, of Fairbault, Minn., posed as a depressed, suicidal, young female nurse in responses he made to posts on suicide websites by Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada.
“In each case, he feigned caring and understanding to win the trust of the victims while encouraging each to hang themselves, falsely claiming that he would also commit suicide, and attempting to persuade them to let him watch the hangings via webcam,” Justice Barry Anderson wrote for the court’s four-member majority.
According to court records Kajouji, 19, jumped into a frozen river in 2008; Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
The ruling stated that Melchert-Dinkel, in a series of online conversations, told Drybrough he could kill himself by hanging by tying a rope to a doorknob and then tossing the rope over the door.
“Through all of this, Melchert-Dinkel presented himself as a compassionate and caring nurse, who not only could relate to Drybrough’s misery, but also could provide practical advice due to her medical experience,” Anderson wrote. “He told Drybrough that he hoped ‘to be a [friend] at the end for you [as you] are for me.'”
First amendment right?
Then, when he contacted Kajouji, who had posted on a suicide website seeking instruction on methods of suicide, the Minnesota man was “pretending to be a 31-year-old emergency room nurse who was also suicidal,” said the ruling.
Though the young Canadian girl described her plan to jump off the bridge, “Melchert-Dinkel tried repeatedly to dissuade her from her plan and convince her instead to hang herself,” Anderson said. “He also made oblique attempts to persuade her to kill herself immediately, saying they ‘would die today if we could’ and ‘I wish [we both] could die now.'”
Eventually, Minnesota authorities tracked the conversations to Melchert-Dinkel’s computer; he ultimately confessed to the communications, but first sought to blame his daughters. He was arrested, tried and convicted on two counts of assisting suicide under a state statute.
The initial state court found that he “intentionally advised and encouraged” both people to take their own lives, and that the speech involved fell outside of the free-speech protections contained within the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But on appeal to the state’s highest court, Melchert-Dinkel got a reversal on the basis of the First Amendment.
“We conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide,” Anderson wrote. “Because the district court did not make a specific finding on whether Melchert-Dinkel assisted the victims’ suicides, we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Prohibiting only speech that assists suicide, combined with the statutory limitation that such enablement must be targeted at a specific individual, narrows the reach to only the most direct, causal links between speech and the suicide. We thus conclude that the proscription against ‘assist[ing]’ another in taking the other’s own life is narrowly drawn to serve the State’s compelling interest in preserving human life. We therefore reject Melchert-Dinkel’s argument that the statutory prohibition against assisting another in committing suicide facially violates the First Amendment.
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Two of the high court’s justices did not participate in the appeal; Justice Alan Page offered the court’s lone dissent.
“Although I agree that Melchert-Dinkel encouraged and advised the victims, he did not take any concrete action to assist in Drybrough’s and Kajouji’s tragic suicides,” Page wrote. “Because the state did not present any evidence that Melchert-Dinkel engaged in any act other than pure speech, I conclude that the State’s evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Melchert-Dinkel assisted their suicides.”
And he added this: “I would not remand to the district court for further proceedings, and because the words ‘advis[ing]’ and ‘encourage[ing]’ as used in Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1, must be severed from the statute as unconstitutional, I would reverse Melchert-Dinkel’s convictions.”
According to various news reports, Melchert-Dinkel — a former licensed nurse who is now earning his living driving a truck — encouraged up to 20 people to kill themselves as he watched via webcam, though he was never actually able to witness a suicide.