The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the convictions of a former nurse accused of encouraging two people whom he met online to kill themselves.
William Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in 2011 of two counts of aiding suicide. The judge found that he "intentionally advised and encouraged" an English man and a Canadian woman to take their own lives.
The high court struck down a section of the state's assisted suicide law that makes it a crime to "encourage" someone to commit suicide, but upheld part of the law that makes it a crime to "assist" in someone's suicide.
Since the lower court judge did not rule on whether Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in a suicide, the high court sent the case back to that judge for further consideration.
"It's a legal system, it's not a justice system. The two are completely different," the Canadian woman's mother, Deborah Chevalier, said by phone upon learning of the ruling. "At the very least, the world knows what he's done. His friends, his family know what he's done. He can't run away from that."
Her 18-year-old daughter, Nadia Kajouji, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
According to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, who prosecuted the case, it's now up to the lower court judge to decide whether the evidence showed that Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said he doesn't believe there is enough evidence to prove that.
Beaumaster disagreed. The court ruling says speech alone can be used to "assist" or enable a suicide if it goes beyond merely expressing a moral viewpoint or providing comfort or support.
"Here, we need only note that speech instructing another on suicide methods falls within the ambit of constitutional limitations on speech ... " the justices wrote.
Beaumaster said the fact that the justices sent the case back to the lower court shows there's evidence that Melchert-Dinkel assisted in the deaths.
Justice Alan Page disagreed that the case should be sent back to determine whether Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides. He said there's not enough evidence, and that it is a waste of the court's resources.
The high court's ruling could affect the outcome of another case that challenged the constitutionality of Minnesota's law that bans people from assisting, advising or encouraging suicide.
That case involves members of Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group, who were involved in the 2007 death of an Apple Valley woman. That case is also pending before the Supreme Court.
Evidence presented in Melchert-Dinkel's case showed he 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 Kajoufi, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005.
Watkins argued that Melchert-Dinkel had no influence on the victims, and that he was merely offering them support. He said Melchert-Dinkel's speech may have been "despicable," but it was protected, and that the state's law is unconstitutional when applied to speech.
Prosecutors said Melchert-Dinkel targeted people he knew he could influence, and his advice helped lead them to end their lives. They said his speech wasn't protected by the First Amendment because it was integral to criminal conduct, amounted to incitement, and was based on "deceit, fraud and lies."
The state Supreme Court disagreed with all of those arguments.
"There is no dispute as to either the depravity of Melchert-Dinkel's conduct or the fact that he lied to his victims," the justices wrote. "But to the extent that the State argues that Melchert-Dinkel's speech is unprotected simply because he was lying, the argument fails."