Ex-nurse loses suicide aid appeal
A US appeal court has upheld the convictions of a former nurse who hunted for suicidal people in online chatrooms and encouraged a British man and a Canadian woman to kill themselves.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 49, who was convicted last year of two counts of aiding suicide, acknowledged that what he did was morally wrong, but argued that he merely exercised his constitutional right to free speech.
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed. "We are confident that the constitution does not immunise Melchert-Dinkel's morbid, predatory behaviour simply because it appears in the form of written words," the justices' 31-page decision said.
Melchert-Dinkel's lawyer, Terry Watkins, said that while his client's actions were unsavoury, he still believed they were protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. He plans to appeal to the state supreme court.
Court documents show Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and searched online for depressed people. 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, Melchert-Dinkel 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 convicted last year over the deaths of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, who hanged himself in 2005, and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, from Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
In the decision, written by Judge Kevin Ross, the appeal court found the state's assisted suicide statute did not violate the First Amendment because it prohibits speech that is "integral" to conduct the state seeks to prevent. The First Amendment did not protect all speech absolutely, the court said.
In arguing to overturn the conviction, Mr Watkins said his client did not talk anyone into suicide, but instead offered emotional support to two people who had already decided to take their lives. Prosecutors said he convinced his victims to do something they might not have done without him. The appeals court agreed, with the justices noting that both Mr Drybrough and Ms Kajouji died shortly after Melchert-Dinkel sent each of them a series of internet messages "prodding them to kill themselves".
Melchert-Dinkel was sentenced to more than six years in prison, but will not serve that if he follows the terms of his parole, which include 360 days in jail. The jail time - which was on hold while his appeal was pending - was split so he will serve 320 days upfront, then two-day stints on the anniversary of each victim's death for 10 years.