MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the convictions of a former nurse accused of trolling the Internet for suicidal people and encouraging two to kill themselves, ruling Wednesday that part of a law banning someone from "encouraging" suicide is unconstitutional.
William Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in 2011 of two counts of aiding suicide, after a judge found he "intentionally advised and encouraged" an English man and a Canadian woman to take their own lives.
But the state's highest court found that language in Minnesota's law that makes it illegal to "advise" or "encourage" suicide is too broad and encompasses speech that expresses a viewpoint and is protected under the First Amendment.
However, the justices upheld part of the law that makes it a crime to "assist" in someone's suicide — and said speech could be considered assisting. Since the lower court judge did not issue a ruling on "assisting" suicide, Melchert-Dinkel's case was sent back to that judge for further consideration.
"It's a legal system; it's not a justice system. The two are completely different," said Deborah Chevalier, the mother of the Canadian woman who took her life after communicating online with Melchert-Dinkel. "At the very least, the world knows what he's done. His friends, his family know what he's done. He can't run away from that."
Wednesday's ruling will likely affect the outcome of another case that challenged the constitutionality of Minnesota's assisted-suicide law.
That case, pending before the Supreme Court, involves members of Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group, who were involved in the 2007 death of an Apple Valley woman.
Evidence in the Melchert-Dinkel case showed he was obsessed with suicide and sought out depressed people online. When he found them, he posed as a suicidal female nurse, feigning compassion and offering step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.
Melchert-Dinkel told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase." According to court documents, he acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
He was convicted in the deaths of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England. Kajouji jumped into a frozen river in 2008, and Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
He was sentenced to 360 days in jail, but that was put on hold and he has remained free while the appeal was pending.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, who prosecuted the case, said it's now up to the lower court judge to decide whether the evidence showed Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides.