A former Minnesota nurse charged with aiding the suicides of two people was not covered by free-speech protections when he sought out depressed people online and encouraged them to kill themselves, a prosecutor argued in court documents Wednesday.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, of Faribault, is charged with two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman. His attorney has asked that the case be dismissed on free-speech grounds, and argued the state's aiding suicide law is too vague.
In his response Wednesday, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster wrote there is no case law that says speech is protected if its goal is to obtain someone's death. He also said Melchert-Dinkel knew what he was doing was wrong.
He said Melchert-Dinkel's actions are the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater and "words meant as an incitement to illegal action or action for the destruction of life do not constitute free speech."
Beaumaster said 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, Beaumaster said. He also entered phony suicide pacts.
"This was not public speech or discourse or honest individual discussion as to the concept of suicide, this was Mr. Melchert-Dinkel attempting by deception to gratify his own depraved desires to push individuals over the ledge," Beaumaster wrote.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.
Watkins filed documents last month arguing that courts have protected speech on the Internet. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that noted regulating content on the Internet "is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it."
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 wrote that Melchert-Dinkel admitted to 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 he believed killed themselves.
In Drybrough's case, Beaumaster wrote, Melchert-Dinkel used the handle "Li Dao" and gave Drybrough detailed instructions on how to hang himself. Li Dao also told Drybrough he would soon commit suicide himself by hanging. In e-mails to Li Dao, Drybrough wrote he was ill but afraid to commit suicide and that he wished he had Li Dao's courage, Beaumaster said.
Beaumaster said Kajouji told Melchert-Dinkel _ who was posing as a nurse named "Cami" _ that she would jump into a frozen river, wearing ice skates to make it look like an accident. Beaumaster wrote that Cami stated hanging would be better and promised she would hang herself with Kajouji the next day if her jump was unsuccessful.
Minnesota's statute says whomever "intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other's own life" is committing a crime.
Watkins, Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, has argued the Legislature hasn't specified what type of behavior is prohibited under the aiding suicide law and that it's not clear if speech is prohibited. He said his client had no direct participation in any suicides.
But Beaumaster wrote that the law is clear and that Melchert-Dinkel knew he was committing a crime.
"The statute leaves no room for wild speculation as to meaning or application," Beaumaster wrote. He added that during the investigation, Melchert-Dinkel admitted to posing as a female nurse online and offering suicide advice, but said he stopped after about five years because he knew it was wrong. He said Melchert-Dinkel also called his own actions "disgusting."
It's not clear when Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville will make a decision on the defense request to dismiss the case. Watkins has also asked Neuville to throw out Melchert-Dinkel's confession, and that decision is pending.
Kajouji's mother, Deborah Chevalier, said Ottawa police told her Wednesday that they would not be bringing charges against Melchert-Dinkel in connection with her daughter's death because he is already facing trial in the U.S. She said she hopes the Minnesota case goes to trial so a precedent can be set.
"No matter what happens with this, he's not going to be punished as he should," Chevalier said. "In reality, he's a serial killer."