A former nurse from Faribault, Minn., was convicted of two felonies Tuesday when a judge ruled he had used "repeated and relentless" tactics during Internet chats that coaxed two people to kill themselves.

Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville found that William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, "imminently incited" the suicides of Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Ontario. Drybrough, 32, hanged himself in 2005, and Kajouji, 18, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.

In a 42-page ruling that found Melchert-Dinkel guilty of two counts of felony advising and encouraging suicide, Neuville wrote that it was particularly disturbing that Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a young, suicidal, female nurse, tried to persuade the victims to hang themselves while he watched via webcam.

"Actually witnessing a victim's suicide could serve no purpose other than to satisfy Defendant's own morbid excitement of witnessing the death of another," the judge wrote.

Although the defense promises to appeal, the verdict was a key moment in a case that began three years ago, when a British woman alerted a Minnesota Internet crime task force to an "online predator" from Minnesota.

Melchert-Dinkel eventually lost his nursing license and was charged last April. He, the defense and prosecution agreed last month to submit written evidence and arguments to Neuville and ask him alone to decide guilt or innocence.

County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said during that process that although Melchert-Dinkel faced only two counts, he chatted online with 10 suicidal people, five of whom killed themselves.

Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, argued that his client's writings, while "despicable," didn't materially assist the suicides and constituted protected free speech.

Watkins on Tuesday called the verdict unprecedented nationally. He said that although he respects the judge's decision, it could threaten the "exchange of ideas between two private people who are both consenting adults. Depending on how far you pull that, it certainly could set a dangerous precedent."

Watkins said Melchert-Dinkel, who is not in custody, took the news "in stride" and is prepared to appeal.

Beaumaster said the verdict proves the state's assisted-suicide statutes work even when the suspect and victim are nations or oceans apart. The technology is different, but the principle is the same, he said.

"We don't want people preying on others in society that are despondent or have health issues and are suicidal," he said. "We don't want anyone encouraging them to follow through with a desire to end their life."

In a confession to police, Melchert-Dinkel acknowledged that what he did was wrong.

"I wanted to just ... be with them in their time of need. ..." he said, according to interview transcripts. "Just to be an advocate for someone who is all-along depressed, is at the end of their rope, wants to die and is going to do it come hell or high water."

Neuville, in rejecting the free-speech defense, noted that inciting people to commit suicide is considered "Lethal Advocacy," which isn't protected by the First Amendment because it goes against the government's compelling interest in protecting the lives of vulnerable citizens.

If Melchert-Dinkel had written a political or religious opinion on suicide for public consumption, the law would allow him an "almost limitless opportunity to express his view," the judge wrote. Instead, he wrote, Melchert-Dinkel "focused his advice and encouragement on two vulnerable and depressed victims in a private setting."

Marc Kajouji of Toronto said the verdict represents justice for society more than for his sister, Nadia.

'It doesn't bring her back'

"People think they can go unpunished regardless of what they say over the Internet," he said. "This is a clear message that you can't encourage suicide. It's not going to be tolerated, and people will be punished.

"It's justice for her, I guess, but it doesn't bring her back. I'd trade it all just to say hello to her again and give her a hug."

Neuville scheduled Melchert-Dinkel's sentencing for May 4. Beaumaster said the conviction is an unranked offense in state sentencing guidelines, so it's too early to say what prison time, if any, Melchert-Dinkel may face.

The judge, in his order, marked in boldface Melchert-Dinkel's most incriminating statements, taken from transcripts preserved from the Internet chats.

In one exchange, Kajouji shared her despondency and laid out her upcoming plans to jump into the Rideau River. Melchert-Dinkel, posing as "Cami," feigned understanding.

"It feels good being able to be honest with someone," Kajouji wrote.

"Yes, and I'm honest with you," he responded.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921