Trial underway for former nurse accused of assisting suicides

William Melchert-Dinkel
William Melchert-Dinkel leaves the Rice County Courthouse with his attorney Terry Watkins and wife after waiving his right to a jury trial on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, in Faribault, Minn. Melchert-Dinkel, 48, of Faribault, faces two counts of aiding suicide.
AP Photo/Robb Long

A judge in Rice County is hearing oral arguments today in the case of a former nurse charged with aiding two suicides through Internet communications.

William Melchert-Dinkel's trial will be fast -- he's agreed to accept evidence brought against him and has waived his right to a jury trial, meaning the judge alone will decide if he's guilty.

The verdict, due within 20 days, will bring a degree of closure to a case that began more than five years ago with the suicide death of a man in England. But legal observers are more interested in what happens after the trial.

If Melchert-Dinkel is convicted, he could appeal based on issues his defense attorney has raised during pre-trial proceedings, including an argument that the 48-year-old Faribault man's actions were protected by his free-speech rights and therefore weren't crimes.

Attorney Terry Watkins has also questioned whether Minnesota courts have jurisdiction over the case when the two suicide victims died in other countries, though attorneys observing the case said that would be a more difficult argument to win.

If Melchert-Dinkel's case ends up in an appeals court, Minnesota's little-used law against aiding suicide will be put to the test.

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Melchert-Dinkel is accused of encouraging several people online to commit suicide, including two who ended up killing themselves. Prosecutors have said he entered into fake suicide pacts with people, posing as a female nurse. Besides the suicide death of Mark Drybrough in 2005, the suicide death of Nadia Kajouji of Canada was also linked to Melchert-Dinkel.

Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville has denied Watkins' motions for dismissal based on both the free-speech and jurisdiction arguments. Legal observers said it makes sense for Melchert-Dinkel to skip a jury trial if he and his attorney agree with prosecutors on the basic facts of the case.

Attorneys who use the strategy might think arguing over facts at trial is a futile effort. Instead, they see opportunity in an appeal focused on questioning the law itself, said James Ryan, a Minneapolis attorney who has handled dozens of appeals.

In theory, criminals who appeal based on analysis of the law -- rather than the facts in a case -- have a better chance for an overturned conviction, Ryan said.

"In the case of a pure question of law like jurisdiction or the constitutional issue of free speech, it doesn't turn on the credibility of witnesses, it turns upon an analysis of the law," Ryan said. "The chances are better because you're having the appellate court take a fresh look at it as if they're the first ones to rule on it."

Criminals who appeal based on facts presented in a trial could have a harder time because appeals judges have to respect lower courts' judgments to a degree, he said.

AIDING SUICIDE -- WHAT'S THE LAW?

Minnesota's law against aiding suicide, which applies to anyone who "intentionally advises, encourages, or assists" suicide, comes with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

But is the law unconstitutional? Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor found himself asking that question when teaching that part of the code to his students recently.

"I thought it was surprisingly broad," Osler said. "Just saying that encouraging someone to take their own life -- that does seem to raise some free-speech issues."

Osler said Minnesota's law doesn't specifically address whether someone who writes a song or book encouraging suicide could be charged if what they wrote leads to a suicide death.

"Are we really willing to extend criminal liability that far?" Osler asked. "This kind of case does present that kind of issue fairly plainly."

Richard Frase, a professor specializing in criminal law at the University of Minnesota Law School, agreed that an appeal on free-speech grounds in Melchert-Dinkel's case would revisit the classic conflict between First Amendment values and public safety.

But he said the Supreme Court has weighed in on limits to free speech.

"The speech has to be likely to incite imminent lawless action," Frase said, adding that a court would likely see a difference between someone writing about how to commit suicide on the Internet and someone telling a specific person how to commit suicide and encouraging them to do it.

"That might be imminent lawless action, or at least imminent harm," he said.