MINNEAPOLIS – A former Minnesota nurse who prosecutors say sought out depressed people in Internet chat rooms and encouraged two of them to kill themselves won't get his case dismissed on free speech grounds, a judge ruled Tuesday.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, of Faribault, is charged with two counts of aiding suicide, for allegedly advising and encouraging an English man and a Canadian woman to take their own lives.
His attorney had asked that the case be dismissed, saying Melchert-Dinkel had no direct participation in any suicides, and that his e-mail and Internet conversations involved protected speech. Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville disagreed, saying in a 21-page ruling that speech that aids the suicide of another is not protected by the First Amendment.
The judge said Minnesota law doesn't prevent people from "expressing opinions or discussing suicide," but it does make it a crime to participate in a narrow and precise type of speech — speech that "intentionally and directly advises, encourages or aids a specific person to end their own life."
"Thus, speech that directly encourages and imminently incites the act of suicide ... falls outside the protection of the First Amendment," Neuville wrote.
According to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and hanging, and cruised the Internet for potential victims. When he found them, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves. Melchert-Dinkel also entered phony suicide pacts, Beaumaster has said.
Melchert-Dinkel was charged in April with two counts of aiding suicide in the 2005 hanging death of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Conventry, England, and the 2008 drowning of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario.
Beaumaster said in earlier court documents that Melchert-Dinkel admitted participating in online chats with at least 15 to 20 people about suicide and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom Melchert-Dinkel believed killed themselves. Melchert-Dinkel allegedly told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase."
The prosecutor said Tuesday that he is pleased with the judge's ruling and is preparing for trial. The next court hearing is set for Nov. 19. A plea is expected to be formally entered then.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said he hadn't read the judge's ruling and had no immediate comment on it. He said nothing has changed about the case, and he is anticipating that his client will plead not guilty.
Watkins had earlier asked that Melchert-Dinkel's statements to police be thrown out, but he has since withdrawn that request. Watkins also had asked that the case be dismissed because of a lack of probable cause and because the state's aiding suicide law is unconstitutionally vague.
Neuville denied those requests as well.
Neuville wrote that prosecutors offered sufficient evidence to prove the charges, including copies of e-mails sent to Drybrough and conversations Melchert-Dinkel had with Kajouji in Internet chat rooms.
According to prosecutors, investigators found e-mails in which Melchert-Dinkel gave Drybrough explicit details on how to hang himself, stating "just a sturdy knot is very much all one needs."
Internet chats with Kajouji suggest he posed as a compassionate, suicidal woman who promised she would die shortly after Kajouji. In one conversation, he allegedly told her hanging would be better than jumping, and: "im just tryin to help you do what is best for you not me."
Neuville wrote the evidence shows Melchert-Dinkel may have intentionally encouraged both people to kill themselves: by forming a pact to commit suicide with Kajouji; and by telling Drybrough that he wanted to die badly himself, but would put off his own suicide so he could be there for Drybrough.
Neuville also wrote that Minnesota law is not vague on the issue. He said words like "advise," ''encourage," or "assist" are common, and an ordinary person would know what conduct is prohibited.