In this Feb. 17, 2011 file photo, William Melchert-Dinkel, center, leaves the Rice County Courthouse with his attorney Terry Watkins, right, and wife, Joyce Melchert-Dinkel, after waiving his right to a jury trial, in Faribault, Minn. Melchert-Dinkel, 48, of Faribault, faces two counts of aiding suicide, each carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Prosecutors say he encouraged two people to take their lives, including 18-year-old Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a river in 2008; and 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, England, who hung himself in 2005. (AP/File)
MINNEAPOLIS -- A defense attorney for a Minnesota man accused of trolling the Internet for suicidal people and encouraging two to kill themselves told a judge Thursday that the victims already had plans to take their lives and his client's online conversations with them had no impact.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman. Attorneys for both sides presented oral arguments Thursday to Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville, who has up to 20 days to decide whether Melchert-Dinkel is guilty.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel, an ex-nurse from Faribault, was obsessed with suicide and hanging and that he sought out potential victims on the Internet. When he found them, prosecutors say, he posed in chat rooms and in e-mails as a woman, played the role of a compassionate friend and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could take their lives.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
He's charged in the 2005 hanging death of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, and the 2008 death of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said Thursday in court that Melchert-Dinkel pretended to be a suicidal, female nurse to build trust with his victims.
"These individuals were fragile people," Beaumaster said. "It was the defendant who was suggesting a long-term solution to a short-term problem."
Melchert-Dinkel has accepted the facts in the case, but his attorney, Terry Watkins, said that while his client's online activities were "creepy" and "abhorrent," they don't constitute a crime.
"That minimal communication did nothing, did nothing, to change the acts that had already been put in motion," Watkins said.
"It is not against the law to say, 'I understand, hun, I understand,"' he added, referring to the type of content in messages Melchert-Dinkel exchanged with the victims.
Beaumaster also said the evidence showed "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Melchert-Dinkel intentionally encouraged both people to kill themselves and he aided in Drybrough's suicide.
According to court documents, Drybrough posted a message in a chat room, asking if anyone had instructions on how to hang oneself without access to something high. He began receiving e-mails containing detailed instructions from Melchert-Dinkel, who was using the name "Li dao." In the Canada case, evidence shows Kajouji went online March 1, 2008, saying she wanted to commit suicide but was afraid of failing. Five days later, she participated in online chats with "Cami" -- who prosecutors say was actually Melchert-Dinkel. During the chats, Kajouji said she planned to jump into a river the following Sunday, and Cami said if that didn't work, they would hang themselves together that Monday. Kajouji disappeared March 9, 2008. Her body was found six weeks later.
Watkins said the evidence shows no immediate or imminent connection between Melchert-Dinkel's conversations with the two and their suicides.
He said Drybrough died up to four days after last communicating with Melchert-Dinkel and deflected Melchert-Dinkel's request to die together or set up a webcam so Melchert-Dinkel could watch. Drybrough also did not hang himself in the same method described by Melchert-Dinkel, Watkins said.
And in the case of Kajouji, Watkins said, Melchert-Dinkel tried to talk her out of jumping and suggest hanging instead, but she could not be swayed from her plan.