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Online suicides case back in lower court

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POSTED August 8, 2014 10:01 p.m.

FARIBAULT, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota prosecutors argued Friday that an ex-nurse should be convicted of assisting suicide for going online and urging two people to kill themselves, but a defense attorney said there’s no evidence to prove that William Melchert-Dinkel’s Internet chats led directly to their deaths.

Melchert-Dinkel, 52, was convicted in 2011 of encouraging the suicides of a Canadian woman and an English man. But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed that conviction in March, saying a part of state law that banned encouraging or advising suicides was unconstitutional because it was too broad, and it encompassed speech that would be protected under the First Amendment.

However, the justices upheld part of the law that makes it a crime to “assist” in someone’s suicide — and said speech could also be considered as assisting. Melchert-Dinkel’s case was sent back to the district court judge for further consideration.

Attorneys for both sides argued their positions Friday in Rice County District Court.

Assistant Rice County Attorney Terence Swihart said there is evidence to show that Melchert-Dinkel is guilty.

“His intent was to help them so they would not fail in their attempts to commit suicide,” Swihart said. “Mr. Melchert-Dinkel provided specific information on how to kill yourself. He provided suicide methods. It went beyond moral viewpoint or expressing opinion.”

Evidence 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, feigning compassion and offering step-by-step 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 was initially convicted in the deaths of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England. Kajouji jumped into a frozen river in 2008, and Drybrough hanged himself in 2005. He was sentenced to 360 days in jail, but that was put on hold and he has remained free while the appeal was pending.

“Mr. Melchert-Dinkel’s statements to police support his guilt in assisting,” said Swihart. “He turned Kajouji from someone who was terrified to die into someone who killed herself. ... He dissuaded Drybrough from using other methods, such as overdosing, which was his preferred method, because it’s unpredictable, something he knew as a nurse.”

Melchert-Dinkel’s attorney, Terry Watkins, said although his client encouraged the two suicides, there’s no evidence to prove that Melchert-Dinkel’s advice led directly to the deaths.

“Try as we might, the evidence just isn’t there. Advising is not prohibited. Pure speech is not prohibited,” he said.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Watkins had asked to withdraw his prior waiver of a jury trial, saying that under the law as it now stands, he would have taken a different defense approach. Rice County Judge Thomas Neuville denied that request in June, saying the Minnesota Supreme Court had instructed only that he make findings on whether or not Melchert-Dinkel “assisted” the suicides.

Neuville will issue a decision within 30 days.

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