MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An attorney for a former Minnesota nurse convicted of going online and encouraging two people to kill themselves said in a court document Wednesday that his client was merely supporting his alleged victims and had no influence on their actions.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 50, of Faribault, was convicted last year on two counts of aiding suicide. His attorney is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn those convictions. In court documents filed Wednesday, attorney Terry Watkins said Melchert-Dinkel did not directly participate in the suicides of an English man and a Canadian woman.
Watkins said the actions represented protected speech and argued that Minnesota's statute outlawing assisted suicide is too broad. He said Melchert-Dinkel's communications with the man and woman may have been "immoral and disgusting" but that he was only supporting them.
"The First Amendment doesn't allow a judgment to be made on the despicability of one's speech, only on its criminality as an integral part of the crime or its incitement to cause another to do something which he or she otherwise might not do," Watkins wrote, saying Melchert-Dinkel was not integral to the suicides.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals found in July that the state's assisted suicide statute is constitutional, and that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was not protected.
Evidence presented in the case showed Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and sought out depressed people online. When he found them, he posed as a suicidal female nurse, feigned compassion and offered 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's convicted in the deaths of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005, and Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
Watkins argued in court papers that Melchert-Dinkel had no influence: that Drybrough decided to hang himself before Melchert-Dinkel suggested death by hanging, and Kajouji used her own method despite Melchert-Dinkel's suggestions.
Prosecutors have said all along that Melchert-Dinkel targeted individuals he knew he could influence. During sentencing in May 2011, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said that while the victims may have been depressed, Melchert-Dinkel's advice helped lead them to end their lives.
"In this case we have someone who, for sport, for entertainment, for the thrill of chase, sought out people who were depressed, who were suicidal," Beaumaster said in 2011. "That makes it worse in my mind."
In convicting Melchert-Dinkel in March 2011, Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville agreed that the victims' predisposition to suicide was not a valid defense.
"The court finds that defendant's speech imminently incited the victims to commit suicide, and can be described as 'lethal advocacy,' which is analogous to the category of unprotected speech known as 'fighting words' and 'imminent incitement of lawlessness,'" the judge wrote.
Watkins acknowledged there are some categories that are prohibited, but said his client's actions do not fall into those categories.
The attorney also noted the trial court insinuated that Melchert-Dinkel had a duty to prevent the suicides. Watkins said that duty does not exist. He cited case law in which a woman's murder conviction was overturned after an appellate court found that her "mere inaction" to stop her son from killing his wife and dismembering the body didn't amount to criminal liability.
Watkins also said Minnesota's law banning assisting suicide may be constitutional, but when applied to speech, it has to be narrowly tailored. He said Minnesota's statute is unconstitutional because it is too broad.
Melchert-Dinkel was sentenced 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.