MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the convictions of a former nurse accused of trolling the Internet for suicidal people and encouraging two to kill themselves, ruling Wednesday that part of a law banning someone from "encouraging" suicide is unconstitutional.
William Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in 2011 of two counts of aiding suicide, after a judge found he "intentionally advised and encouraged" an English man and a Canadian woman to take their own lives.
But the state's highest court found that language in Minnesota's law that makes it illegal to "advise" or "encourage" suicide is too broad and encompasses speech that expresses a viewpoint and is protected under the First Amendment.
However, the justices upheld part of the law that makes it a crime to "assist" in someone's suicide -- and said speech could be considered assisting. Since the lower court judge did not issue a ruling on "assisting" suicide, Melchert-Dinkel's case was sent back to that judge for further consideration.
"It's a legal system; it's not a justice system. The two are completely different," said Deborah Chevalier, the mother of the Canadian woman who took her life after communicating online with Melchert-Dinkel. "At the very least, the world knows what he's done. His friends, his family know what he's done. He can't run away from that."
Wednesday's ruling will likely affect the outcome of another case that challenged the constitutionality of Minnesota's assisted-suicide law.
That case, pending before the Supreme Court, involves members of Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group, who were involved in the 2007 death of an Apple Valley woman.
Evidence in the Melchert-Dinkel case showed he was obsessed with suicide and sought out depressed people online. When he found them, he posed as a suicidal female nurse, feigning compassion and offering step-by-step 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.
He was convicted in the deaths of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England. Kajouji jumped into a frozen river in 2008, and Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
He was sentenced to 360 days in jail, but that was put on hold and he has remained free while the appeal was pending.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, who prosecuted the case, said it's now up to the lower court judge to decide whether the evidence showed Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides.
Justice Barry Anderson, writing for the majority, said speech alone can be used to assist or enable a suicide if it is narrowly targeted to one person and provides that person with what is needed to carry out the act.
"This signifies a level of involvement in the suicide beyond merely expressing a moral viewpoint or providing general comfort or support. Rather, 'assist,' by its plain meaning, involves enabling the person to commit suicide," he wrote.
"Here, we need only note that speech instructing another on suicide methods falls within the ambit of constitutional limitations on speech ..." the ruling said.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said he doesn't believe there's enough evidence to prove his client assisted in the deaths.
"We've never pretended that the actions that he did should be condoned or should be admired ... but constitutionally, he was not in the wrong," Watkins said.
Justice Alan Page offered the lone dissent. While he agreed that the state's language against "advising" and "encouraging" suicides is unconstitutional, he disagreed that the lower court should now determine whether Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides. He said there's not enough evidence, and it's a waste of resources.
Minnesota authorities began investigating Melchert-Dinkel in March 2008 when an anti-suicide activist in Britain told them that someone in the state was using the Internet to manipulate people into killing themselves.
According to prosecutors, investigators found emails in which Melchert-Dinkel gave Drybrough details on how to hang himself, stating "just a sturdy knot is very much all one needs."
Internet chats with Kajouji suggest he posed as a compassionate, suicidal woman who promised she would die shortly after Kajouji. In one conversation, he allegedly told her hanging would be better than jumping, and: "im just tryin to help you do what is best for you not me."
Chevalier, Kajouji's mother, and Elaine Drybrough, Mark Drybrough's mother, both believe Melchert-Dinkel influenced their children.
"Her last communication on the computer was with him," Chevalier said. "I think that tells you he did have something to do with it."
Beaumaster, the prosecutor, said everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion, but the state also has to try to protect vulnerable people.
"It's not free speech to try to get other individuals to take their lives," Beaumaster said. "In fact, it's, I think, the antithesis of what our Constitution was meant to be."
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