Former Faribault nurse William Melchert-Dinkel has been found guilty — again — of assisting in the 2005 suicide of a British man and attempting to assist in the 2008 suicide of a Canadian teenager.
But the verdicts handed down Tuesday by Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville don’t mean that the case is nearing the finish line, the defendant’s attorney said.
Melchert-Dinkel’s legal battle has spanned almost six years and has led to Minnesota’s highest court striking down part of a state law on encouraging and advising suicide that had been in the statutes for 128 years.
According to evidence, testimony and the defendant himself, Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and sought out suicidal people online by posing as a female nurse who planned to kill herself. He acknowledged taking part in chats about suicide with about 20 people and entering fake pacts with about 10 people.
Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, were two of the people he talked to about hanging themselves. Drybrough hanged himself in 2005; Kajouji jumped off a river bridge in 2008.
Melchert-Dinkel, 52, was charged in 2010 in Rice County and convicted by Neuville in 2011 of encouraging the two suicides. The judge stayed a 360-day sentence pending appeal. He lost his nursing license and began driving a truck for a living.
Meanwhile, proceedings in the Dakota County case against Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group, and two of its members also were stayed pending the Melchert-Dinkel appeal. Final Exit Network, Lawrence Egbert and Roberta Massey are charged in connection with the 2007 suicide of an Apple Valley woman.
Robert Rivas, a Florida attorney representing Final Exit, said the Melchert-Dinkel convictions probably aren’t relevant to his case. But, Rivas said, the case could be postponed yet again: At a hearing Monday in Hastings, District Judge Karen Asphaug told the attorneys she intended to recuse herself from the case, citing undisclosed personal reasons, Rivas said.
In March, the state Supreme Court reversed Melchert-Dinkel’s convictions, saying that the part of a state law that makes it illegal to advise or encourage suicide was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The court’s ruling upheld a part of the law that makes it illegal to assist in a suicide and said speech alone can be used to assist or enable a suicide.
The high court sent the Melchert-Dinkel case back to the district court because the judge did not rule in 2011 about whether Melchert-Dinkel actually assisted in the two suicides. Neuville ruled Tuesday that the state did prove that Melchert-Dinkel assisted in Drybrough’s suicide and that he attempted to help Kajouji commit suicide.
Defense attorney Terry Watkins said Tuesday that he was “a bit surprised” by Neuville’s verdicts. He said Melchert-Dinkel admitted talking to Kajouji about hanging herself. But she didn’t do that; she jumped off a bridge.
Watkins said the judge’s verdicts appear to say that “pure speech in an attempt to assist in a non-crime — suicide — that was never committed can be the basis for a criminal conviction.”
That “seems to not only be crossing the line of prohibited speech but to be crossing the line of prohibited thought,” he said.
At a hearing scheduled for Oct. 15, Watkins said, he plans to ask the judge to stay sentencing pending further appeals.
“There are due process issues, there are free speech issues,” Watkins said. “To suggest we have reached any point of finality in this journey is just not a logical conclusion.”
Melchert-Dinkel does not condone his own behavior, his attorney said.
“He has not contended that this is justifiable,” Watkins said. “It’s discomforting behavior that none of us would condone and he doesn’t either. His position is that his behavior is not criminal under the definition of free speech.”