MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A former Minnesota nurse accused of visiting online chat rooms and encouraging people to kill themselves, and who was ultimately convicted of aiding two suicides, may learn Wednesday whether the state's highest court accepts his argument of free speech.
William Melchert-Dinkel is challenging the state law used to convict him in 2011, saying he was merely offering support to the victims. His attorney has argued that the law — which states that anyone who "intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other's own life" is guilty of a crime — is too broad.
If the Minnesota Supreme Court tackles the law itself, rather than issuing a narrow ruling in Melchert-Dinkel's case, the decision could have broad implications. The court put another assisted suicide case on hold, involving a national right-to-die group, pending its decision.
"My guess is the court is going to consider, head-on, the constitutionality of the law itself, not just its application in this case," Raleigh Hannah Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said Tuesday.
Melchert-Dinkel, 51, was convicted on two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of two people: 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.
In addition to his free speech claim, Melchert-Dinkel argued that he had no influence on either person's actions. But prosecutors say his speech wasn't protected and that he played an integral role in the deaths, including giving step-by-step instructions.
Evidence showed that Melchert-Dinkel 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.