A defense attorney for a Minnesota man accused of trolling the Internet for suicidal people and encouraging two to kill themselves told a judge Thursday that the victims already had plans to take their lives and his client's online conversations with them had no impact.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman.
Attorneys for both sides presented oral arguments Thursday to Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville, who has up to 20 days to decide whether Melchert-Dinkel is guilty.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel, an ex-nurse from Faribault, was obsessed with suicide and hanging and that he sought out potential victims on the Internet. When he found them, prosecutors say, he posed in chat rooms and in e-mails as a woman, played the role of a compassionate friend and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could take their lives.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
He's charged in the 2005 hanging death of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, and the 2008 death of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river.
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Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said Thursday in court that Melchert-Dinkel pretended to be a suicidal, female nurse to build trust with his victims.
"These individuals were fragile people," Beaumaster said. "It was the defendant who was suggesting a long-term solution to a short-term problem."
Melchert-Dinkel has accepted the facts in the case, but his attorney, Terry Watkins, said that while his client's online activities were "creepy" and "abhorrent," they don't constitute a crime.
"That minimal communication did nothing, did nothing, to change the acts that had already been put in motion," Watkins said.
"It is not against the law to say, 'I understand, hun, I understand,'" he added, referring to the type of content in messages Melchert-Dinkel exchanged with the victims.
Beaumaster, the prosecutor, said the evidence showed "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Melchert-Dinkel intentionally encouraged both people to kill themselves and he aided in Drybrough's suicide.
According to court documents, Drybrough posted a message in a chat room, asking if anyone had instructions on how to hang oneself without access to something high. He began receiving e-mails containing detailed instructions from Melchert-Dinkel, who was using the name "Li dao."
In the Canada case, evidence shows Kajouji went online March 1, 2008, saying she wanted to commit suicide but was afraid of failing. Five days later, she participated in online chats with "Cami" - who prosecutors say was actually Melchert-Dinkel.
During the chats, Kajouji said she planned to jump into a river the following Sunday, and Cami said if that didn't work, they would hang themselves together that Monday. Kajouji disappeared March 9, 2008. Her body was found six weeks later.
Watkins said the evidence shows no immediate or imminent connection between Melchert-Dinkel's conversations with the two and their suicides.
He said Drybrough died up to four days after last communicating with Melchert-Dinkel and deflected Melchert-Dinkel's request to die together or set up a webcam so Melchert-Dinkel could watch. Drybrough also did not hang himself in the same method described by Melchert-Dinkel, Watkins said.
And in the case of Kajouji, Watkins said, Melchert-Dinkel tried to talk her out of jumping and suggest hanging instead, but she could not be swayed from her plan.
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 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.
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.
(MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report)