Reversing the conviction of an ex-nurse for urging two people to kill themselves, the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected the state’s ban on “encouraging” suicide but upheld the prohibition on “assisting” suicide.
The court said that the state law’s language prohibiting someone from assisting a suicide doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech protections.
In 2011, William Melchert-Dinkel, a former nurse from Faribault, was convicted of “advising and encouraging” the suicides of a man in England and a teenager in Canada whom he had met online. In finding the “advising and encouraging” language unconstitutional, the state high court sent the case back to Rice County District Court.
That court must determine if Melchert-Dinkel can be prosecuted for “assisting” the two suicides, a question it did not rule on previously.
Justice Alan Page offered the sole dissent in Wednesday’s ruling.
Melchert-Dinkel’s one-year prison sentence had been on hold until the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Melchert-Dinkel, 51, was convicted on two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005, and Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
His case has drawn intense legal scrutiny, along with one focused on a group called the Final Exit Network and two of its members in connection with the suicide of an Apple Valley woman.
Melchert-Dinkel’s attorney had argued that the state law, which targets anyone who “intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other’s own life,” interfered with free-speech rights.
But prosecutors argued that his speech wasn’t protected and that he played an integral role in the deaths, including giving step-by-step instructions to severely depressed people he sought out online.
In July 2012, a state Appeals Court panel ruled in July 2012 that the state’s assisted-suicide law was constitutional and that Melchert-Dinkel’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment.
But in the case involving members of the Final Exit Network, a different Appeals Court panel ruled that the state’s law was unconstitutional when it comes to “advising” or “encouraging” suicide. The group was accused of playing a role in the 2007 suicide of a Minnesota woman, but that case was put on hold while the Supreme Court considered Melchert-Dinkel’s appeal.