(CN) - A Minnesota man who trolled the Internet as a "depressed" female nurse was improperly convicted of encouraging suicide, the state Supreme Court ruled.
The 27-page opinion describes how William Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, Minn., posed as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse in his responses to posts on suicide websites by Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada.
"In each case, he feigned caring and understanding to win the trust of the victims while encouraging each to hang themselves, falsely claiming that he would also commit suicide, and attempting to persuade them to let him watch the hangings via webcam," Justice Barry Anderson wrote for the court's four-member majority.
Kajouji, 19, jumped into a frozen river in 2008. Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
According to the ruling, Melchert-Dinkel - in a series of online conversations - told Drybrough how to commit suicide by hanging by tying a rope to a doorknob and slinging the rope over the top of the door.
"Through all of this, Melchert-Dinkel presented himself as a compassionate and caring nurse, who not only could relate to Drybrough's misery, but also could provide practical advice due to her medical experience," Anderson wrote. "He told Drybrough that he hoped 'to be a [friend] at the end for you [as you] are for me.'"
In contacting Kajouji, who posted to a suicide website seeking advice on suicide methods, Melchert-Dinkel was "pretending to be a 31-year-old emergency room nurse who was also suicidal," the ruling states.
Though Kajouji described her plan to jump off a bridge, "Melchert-Dinkel tried repeatedly to dissuade her from her plan and convince her instead to hang herself," Anderson wrote. "He also made oblique attempts to persuade her to kill herself immediately, saying they 'would die today if we could' and 'I wish [we both] could die now.'"
Minnesota law-enforcement officials eventually tracked the conversations to Melchert-Dinkel's computer. Melchert-Dinkel confessed to the communications after initially blaming his daughters.
He was tried and convicted on two counts of aiding suicide under a state law codified at 609.215, subd. 1.
The Rice County District Court found that he "intentionally advised and encouraged" both Drybrough and Kajouji to take their own lives, and that the speech at issue fell outside the protections of the First Amendment.
Melchert-Dinkel obtained a reversal last week from the Minnesota Supreme Court on the basis of that speech issue.
"We conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide," Anderson wrote. "Because the district court did not make a specific finding on whether Melchert-Dinkel assisted the victims' suicides, we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Anderson added: "Prohibiting only speech that assists suicide, combined with the statutory limitation that such enablement must be targeted at a specific individual, narrows the reach to only the most direct, causal links between speech and the suicide. We thus conclude that the proscription against 'assist[ing]' another in taking the other's own life is narrowly drawn to serve the State's compelling interest in preserving human life. We therefore reject Melchert-Dinkel's argument that the statutory prohibition against assisting another in committing suicide facially violates the First Amendment."
Two justices did not participate in the appeal, and Justice Alan Page offered the lone dissent.
"Although I agree that Melchert-Dinkel encouraged and advised the victims, he did not take any concrete action to assist in Drybrough's and Kajouji's tragic suicides," Page wrote. "Because the state did not present any evidence that Melchert-Dinkel engaged in any act other than pure speech, I conclude that the State's evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Melchert-Dinkel assisted their suicides."
Page added: "I would not remand to the district court for further proceedings, and because the words 'advis[ing]' and 'encourage[ing]' as used in Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1, must be severed from the statute as unconstitutional, I would reverse Melchert-Dinkel's convictions."