Faribault nurse’s suicide-assist conviction reversed
ST. PAUL — Parts of a state law that make it illegal to encourage or advise suicide are unconstitutional, and the conviction of a former Faribault nurse who urged two people to kill themselves is reversed, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The high court sent the case against William Francis Melchert-Dinkel back to district court.
Melchert-Dinkel, 51, was convicted on two counts of “encouraging, advising or assisting another in committing suicide.”
He was sentenced May 4, 2011, in Rice County District Court to one year in jail. District Judge Thomas Neuville allowed him to remain free pending appeal.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court in July 2012 and affirmed the conviction. Melchert-Dinkel then appealed to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
During oral arguments last May, some justices focused on the difference between encouraging or advising in a suicide and assisting in it.
Defense attorney Terry Watkins said his client did not actively take part in the suicides.
If he had watched on a webcam and “walked them through (a suicide) step by step,” that would cross the line into illegal behavior, he said.
‘Assisting’ at issue
In Wednesday’s decision, the Supreme Court said the part of the law that criminalizes “assisting” suicide — as opposed to “encouraging (or) advising” it — does not violate the First Amendment “because it is narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest.”
Assisting a suicide “signals a level of involvement in the suicide beyond merely expressing a moral viewpoint or providing general comfort or support,” the court wrote. And prohibiting speech that only assists suicide “narrows the reach to only the most direct, causal links between speech and the suicide,” the court said.
Since the district court made no findings about whether Melchert-Dinkel “assisted” in the suicides, a remand is required, meaning that part of the case will go back before Rice County District Court, the court said.
Watkins said Wednesday that he agreed with the decision, including its conclusion that “there has to be some cause and effect. ... I don’t think anyone believed we had that.”
His client is “relieved” at the outcome, Watkins said.
Rice County Attorney G. Paul Beaumaster said the last footnote of the opinion was “encouraging.”
The majority wrote that the dissenting opinion argued there was insufficient evidence to prove that Melchert-Dinkel assisted in the suicides. But the majority’s definition of “assist” is broader than the one Justice Alan Page used in his analysis, the court said in the footnote.
That’s an indication that the court believes Melchert-Dinkel can be convicted when the case goes back the district court, Beaumaster said.
It has been a difficult case, he continued, and it’s not surprising the court took 10 months to issue its ruling.
“It involves two principles that people hold dear: free speech and protection of vulnerable, mentally ill adults,” Beaumaster said.
10 suicide pacts
Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, killed themselves after they corresponded online with Melchert-Dinkel.
Kajouji jumped off a bridge into a frozen river March 9, 2008, two hours after her last communication with Melchert-Dinkel. He had offered to enter into a suicide pact with her and help instruct her via webcam.
Drybrough hanged himself in his bedroom in July 2005. Three or four days earlier, Melchert-Dinkel, using the screen name “Li dao,” gave him advice on how to position the rope. In both cases, Melchert-Dinkel posed as a young, sympathetic, suicidal woman.
Among his messages to Drybrough was the following, dated July 1, 2005:
“Depending on how tall you are, preferably under 6 feet tall, you can easily hang from a door using the knob on one side to tie the rope to, sling it over the top of the door, attach the noose or loop to yourself then step off and hang successfully. ... I am using it for certain when I go.”
“Li dao” offered to “stay here for you as long as possible” and watch Drybrough’s suicide via webcam as “she” did for another man.
“In the end I watched him go and it was very peaceful and I was pretty pleased I could make this guy’s last moments special for him... **hugs** Li,” Melchert-Dinkel wrote.
Drybrough killed himself around July 27, 2005. His sister found him hanging from a rope attached to a ladder.
Kajouji also corresponded with Melchert-Dinkel, who referred to himself as “Cami” and said he was an emergency room nurse who knew “what does and (doesn’t) work… that is why I chose hanging.”
Kajouji told him in an online chat March 6, 2008, that she was going to commit suicide that Sunday by jumping into the Rideau River in Ottawa near her university.
“Cami” wrote, “Wow OK you want to use hanging too? Or can u?” She repeated that she was going to jump.
“Well, that is OK but most people puss out before doing that ... if it comes down to hanging I can help you with it ... proper positioning of the rope is very important,” Melchert-Dinkel wrote.
Kajouji stuck to her plan. Her body was found in the river six weeks later.
Melchert-Dinkel eventually admitted to police that the Internet communications were his, after first blaming his daughters. He told investigators that he had been “an accessory” to the suicides of about five people, and that he had entered into about 10 suicide pacts.
Melchert-Dinkel worked as a licensed practical nurse in a Faribault nursing home but lost his license as a result of the allegations.
Suicide not illegal
Exceptions to the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment have traditionally included “speech integral to criminal conduct,” “incitement” to lawless action and fraud, the court said.
The state argued that Melchert-Dinkel’s speech fell under these exceptions.
But the first exception is difficult to apply to the assisting-suicide law, the Supreme Court ruled, since suicide itself is not illegal in Minnesota, Canada or Britain.
The same goes for “incitement,” the court said.
“It is difficult to articulate a rule consistent with the First Amendment that punishes an individual for ‘inciting’ activity that is not actually ‘lawless action,’” Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote for the majority.
The Supreme Court also rejected the state’s argument that Melchert-Dinkel’s communications with Kajouji and Drybrough involved “deceit, fraud, and lies.”
“There is no dispute as to either the depravity of Melchert-Dinkel’s conduct or the fact that he lied to his victims,” the court wrote. But previous decisions by the court have recognized “that speech is not unprotected simply because the speaker knows that he or she is lying,” the ruling said.
And it doesn’t qualify as fraud because Melchert-Dinkel did not gain a “material advantage” such as money from his actions, the court said.
Justice Alan Page dissented from the majority decision. Page agreed that the words “advises” and “encourages” should be eliminated from the law as unconstitutional. But he said a remand would be a “waste of scarce judicial resources” because there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to convict Melchert-Dinkel of “assisting” in the suicides.
Justice Wilhelmina Wright did not take part in the ruling. Justice David Lillehaug also took no part; he was not on the court when the case was submitted.
The Minnesota Supreme Court also will hear arguments in a similar case, State vs. Final Exit Network Inc. et al. Proceedings in that case have been stayed pending disposition of the Melchert-Dinkel case.
Members of Final Exit Network, a Georgia nonprofit, are accused of helping former musician Doreen Dunn, 57, of Apple Valley, commit suicide in May 2007 after struggling with debilitating pain.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.