"Encouraging someone to commit suicide is not a crime, Minnesota’s high court ruled Wednesday, reversing the conviction of a nurse who urged people to hang themselves and let him watch via webcam.
William F. Melchert-Dinkel had been found guilty under a law that made it illegal to “advise, encourage, or assist” in a suicide.
The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that advising or encouraging suicide was speech protected by the First Amendment and carved the words from the statute.
“We conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide,” wrote Justice G. Barry Anderson for the majority.
The Rice County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, and a lawyer for Mr. Melchert-Dinkel didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Melchert-Dinkel had posed online as a suicidal female nurse, building bonds with others who were contemplating death.
He pressed Mark Drybrough in England and Ottawa native Nadia Kajouji to hang themselves and to allow him to watch on webcam. Mr. Melchert-Dinkel made suicide pacts with both, according to court documents.
Mr. Drybrough, 32 years old, hanged himself in his bedroom in 2005. Ms. Kajouji, 19 years old, jumped off a bridge to her death in 2008.
Mr. Melchert-Dinkel, 51 years old, was sentenced to a year in prison in 2011 and remained free pending his appeal.
The justices sent the case to back to a trial court to determine whether any of his actions amounted to assisting a suicide.
Certain speech is beyond the protection of the First Amendment, such as fraud, incitement of a violation of the law and speech that plays a key part in a crime.
The Supreme Court rejected the state’s contention that Mr. Melchert-Dinkel’s words fit into those exceptions.
Suicide isn’t illegal in Minnesota. So Mr. Melchert-Dinkel’s speech couldn’t have incited a crime or been integral to criminal conduct, Justice Anderson wrote.
The justices acknowledged the enormity of Mr. Melchert-Dinkel’s lies but said they fell short of fraud, which courts have defined as false claims that are made to gain material advantage."