Appeals court hears ex-nurse's aiding suicide case

May 4, 2011:  William Melchert-Dinkel arrives at the Rice County Courthouse in Faribault, Minn., with his wife, Joyce, for his sentencing.

May 4, 2011: William Melchert-Dinkel arrives at the Rice County Courthouse in Faribault, Minn., with his wife, Joyce, for his sentencing.  (AP2011)

The attorney for an ex-nurse who stalked online suicide chat rooms and was convicted of encouraging two depressed people to kill themselves told a Minnesota appeals court Wednesday that his client was exercising his right to free speech.

William Melchert-Dinkel, 49, was found guilty of aiding the suicides of a British man and a Canadian woman. He has admitted his actions were morally wrong, but argues he did nothing illegal.

"You are permitted under the Constitution to have opinions and the right to share them," defense attorney Terry Watkins told a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

In arguing to overturn the conviction, Watkins said his client didn't talk anyone into suicide but instead offered emotional support to two people who had already decided to take their lives.

Assistant Rice County Attorney Benjamin Bejar disagreed, saying Melchert-Dinkel wasn't advocating suicide in general, but had a targeted plan to lure people to kill themselves. Prosecutors have said he convinced his victims to do something they might not have done without him.

"He went to chat rooms knowing the people there would be predisposed to committing suicide," Bejar said. "I think it is categorically outside First Amendment protections."

Melchert-Dinkel was convicted last year of two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005; and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.

He was sentenced last May to more than six years in prison but he won't serve that if he follows terms of his parole, which include 360 days in jail. The jail time — on hold while his appeal is pending — was split so he'll serve 320 days upfront, then two-day stints on the anniversary of each victim's death for 10 years.

Judges Kevin Ross and Wilhelmina Wright and Senior Judge Stephen Muehlberg have 90 days to issue a decision on the appeal.

Evidence presented during Melchert-Dinkel's trial in southern Minnesota showed he was obsessed with suicide and addicted to hunting for depressed people in online suicide chat rooms. Prosecutors said that when he found them, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.

Prosecutors said Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase." According to court documents, Melchert-Dinkel 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.

Watkins argued Wednesday that while his client had a "disgusting" desire to watch people hang themselves, it wasn't unconstitutional.

Ross asked whether the First Amendment would protect the speech of someone who used words to urge a vulnerable woman at an intersection to walk into oncoming traffic. Watkins said the situations are not parallel. But Ross pressed the issue.

"These were vulnerable individuals ... who believed that their life should not go on," Ross said. "I'm talking about someone who is at the precipice, willing to say yes to the temptation to end their own life. ... I'm talking about coaxing."

Wright and Muehlberg jumped in, adding that Melchert-Dinkel also gave directions to his victims.

Watkins said speech would not be illegal unless it was specific and became part of the crime. He gave the example of someone who gives a gun to a suicidal person, and tells them specifically how to load and use it.

Ross asked Bejar why Minnesota's statute would cover a suicide that took place in England or Canada. Bejar said the crime of aiding suicide originated here, and the state has an interest in preserving all life, not just the lives of Minnesotans.

He said a distinction must be made for a case in which someone is advocating suicide in the abstract, to a large group of people. To criminalize that, he said, would have a chilling effect on speech. But he said Melchert-Dinkel broke the law because he targeted people, intending that they would follow through.

In a statement read at his sentencing last year, Melchert-Dinkel said he was sorry for his role in the suicides and that he realized he had the unique opportunity to talk the victims out of killing themselves, but he did not.

Melchert-Dinkel's nursing license was revoked in 2009.