Suicide-encouraging nurse's conviction is unconstitutional, Supreme Court rules
|Melchert-Dinkel told a suicidal Canadian teenager he "would die today if we could... I wish [we both] could die now."|
THE BACKSTORY: William Melchert-Dinkel charged with aiding two suicides
The court ruled that while there's no constitutional issue with the law against directly assisting suicide, criminalizing less precisely defined speech that advises or encourages such activity violates the First Amendment "because it is narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest."
Melchert-Dinkel, 51, misrepresented his identity on suicide chat boards and advised people on the most painless ways to end their lives. Two people, Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada, killed themselves in 2005 and 2008, respectively, within days of communicating with Melchert-Dinkel.
A tipster contacted authorities about Melchert-Dinkel's activity on the chat board, and he was arrested after his computer was traced to his Faribault home.
"After initially blaming his daughters, Melchert-Dinkel confessed to communicating with Drybrough and Kajouji," the Supreme Court's summary of the case notes.
In striking down the conviction, Justice G. Barry Anderson, representing the majority, wrote, "There is no dispute as to either the depravity of Melchert-Dinkel's conduct or the fact that he lied to his victims." But immorality doesn't correlate with illegality.
"The First Amendment only allows states to forbid advocating for someone else to break the law when such advocacy is both 'directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action' and it is 'likely to incite or produce such action,'" the ruling says. But when that standard is applied to Melchert-Dinkel, "the obvious problem is that suicide is no longer a criminal act in any jurisdiction relevant to this matter."
"It is difficult to articulate a rule consistent with the First Amendment that punishes an individual for 'inciting' activity that is not actually 'lawless action,'" the ruling continues. "Thus, the State's argument fails because suicide is not unlawful and cannot be considered 'lawless action.'"
However, citing a federal case pertaining to late-term abortion, the ruling acknowledges that directly assisting someone's suicide -- for example, smothering them with a pillow after they ask you to do so -- is something the state can indeed criminalize, since it has "a compelling interest in preserving human life."
But prosecutors didn't argue Melchert-Dinkel assisted in the suicides, and since the "assisting and encouraging" statute is no longer applicable, the Supreme Court referred the case back to district court.
So Melchert-Dinkel isn't completely off the hook yet, but his roughly one-year jail sentence remains on hold pending further litigation. Today's development suggests he might get off scot free, apart from whatever mental anguish he's experiencing over the suicides.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, didn't return a voicemail seeking comment.
To read both the majority ruling and Justice Alan Page's dissent (Page agrees with with the majority's decision about the "assisting and encouraging" statute but thinks Melchert-Dinkel's conviction should simply be dismissed rather than referred back to district court), click to page two.