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Assisted Suicide Goes Digital: When Is a Chat-Room Post a Crime?

8 minute read
Justin Horwath / Minneapolis

On Nov. 27, 2005, a man in Faribault, Minn., received an e-mail with a subject line that read, “Melissa goodbye to Li Dao.” It was a suicide note, scribbled digitally, sent by a woman to her online pen pal who had actively encouraged her to embrace death. The only catch: Li Dao was not a real person, and, according to authorities, the virtual advice was not an act of empathy but an attempt to manipulate Melissa into taking her own life — all for what the man told the police was the “the thrill of the chase.”

Li Dao was one of the several aliases used by 48-year-old William Melchert-Dinkel, who would impersonate a female nurse and advise people on suicide methods in online chat rooms. Melissa was one of the dozens of victims he encouraged to commit suicide by feigning compassion. “Having your support is going to help me muster up the strength to go through with this,” Melissa wrote to him. Melchert-Dinkel (who was a registered nurse at the time) then replied, advising Melissa to stay calm while she took her own life: “Just let yourself down on the rope and let go.”

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Documents from the police investigation do not specify what ultimately happened to Melissa, nor what came of the handful of others who shared their suicidal thoughts with Melchert-Dinkel in online exchanges. When detectives interviewed Melchert-Dinkel at his house in January 2009, with his family members present, he openly admitted to asking 15 to 20 people if he could watch while they committed suicide and estimated that he assisted five or fewer people in following through with their plans. Police later collected evidence from his computer hard drive that pointed to Melchert-Dinkel’s direct involvement in the deaths of a Canadian woman in 2008 and an English man in 2005 — enough evidence, they believed, to bring a trial under Minnesota’s assisted-suicide statute. Rice County attorney Paul Beaumaster, who prosecuted the case, calls Melchert-Dinkel’s conduct egregious. “This was fraud,” he explains. “It was fraud to encourage them to take their own lives, and he did it for his own sport. To me that was an aggravating factor.”

The chilling case has fascinated legal experts, who say it poses a unique test of the criminal-justice system and of the First Amendment’s freedom-of-speech guarantees. Melchert-Dinkel’s attorney, Terry Watkins, maintains his client’s online interactions were protected under the First Amendment. “Someone has to make an inference whether those conversations, beyond a level of reasonable doubt, represent encouragement that in fact had a direct and imminent role in their decision to commit suicide,” he says. “Obviously the victims aren’t here to testify as to what, if any, point the conversations had to do with their eventual decision. So you’re speculating from square one all the way up.”

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In a typical assisted-suicide conviction, an element of physical conduct exists — like Jack Kevorkian’s construction of a suicide machine. But Melchert-Dinkel wasn’t even in the same country as his targets in the two cases brought to trial, and the state’s evidence against him consists primarily of online exchanges — words, instant messages, etc. — that, by Watkins’ argument, would fall under protected speech. He’s not alone: Raleigh Levine, a constitutional-law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., has been closely following the case and says that to start restricting speech because it might prompt listeners to kill or harm themselves is dangerous territory. Furthermore, Levine notes that in this case, the immediacy factor is missing: Melchert-Dinkel’s victims “didn’t instantly kill themselves,” she says. “You have to be advocating illegal activity and there has to be this nexus of activity.”

In March, Third District Court Judge Thomas Neuville found Melchert-Dinkel guilty on two counts of violating Minnesota’s assisted-suicide statute, labeling his communications “lethal advocacy,” which he said was analogous to a category of unprotected speech known as fighting words. “Encouraging and advising suicide through speech is the same as inciting a fight or an assault with words,” he ruled, specifying that it is in the government’s compelling interest to protect the lives of its citizens who are particularly vulnerable to suicidal tendencies.

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Last week, Neuville handed down his sentence. The judge ruled that Melchert-Dinkel’s 2005 e-mails to Mark Drybrough, advising him on the methods of hanging — “just a sturdy knot is all one needs” — and his 2008 instant messages with Nadia Kajouji, suggesting they hang themselves together while on webcam — “what sort of rope, etc will [I] need?” she asked — warranted putting Melchert-Dinkel behind bars for 360 days. It was far less than the statutory maximum of 30 years, and the judge decreed that only 320 days were to be served consecutively; afterward, Melchert-Dinkel must report back to jail for two days on the anniversary of each of his victims’ deaths until his sentence is complete. He must also pay restitution and seek psychological help.

Any restitution will come too late for the men and women Melchert-Dinkel encouraged to end their lives. According to court documents, Drybrough originally posted a message on a chat room weeks before his death, asking for help in learning about hanging methods. For a while, he was also seeking information on overdosing. Melchert-Dinkel responded to those queries on July 18, 2005, saying that hanging is “by far the best and surest method — and the method I am using also.” As their e-mail exchanges continued the following week, Drybrough confided to Melchert-Dinkel the story behind his depression, saying he had become ill with glandular fever years ago and never really recovered. He was losing hope, but still remained uncertain about death. “I haven’t set a date for my suicide, though each day is as good as the next for going ahead with it,” he wrote.

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In their last e-mail exchange, Drybrough wrote that he had reservations. “If you want someone who’s suicidal, I’m just not there yet,” he wrote to Melchert-Dinkel. Four to five days later, with no additional e-mails shown in court records, Drybrough’s sister discovered him hanging from a ladder inside his apartment in Coventry, England. The IT technician was 32 years old.

Kajouji, 18, a college freshman at Carleton University in Ottawa, chose not to follow Melchert-Dinkel’s advice in hanging herself, instead choosing to jump into an icy river. In their exchanges, he pretended to be a female nurse and made such a determined case for hanging that the last question he ever asked her in an instant message — posed only hours before her death — was whether she had a rope for a backup plan. Kajouji had originally posted to chat rooms seeking help for successful suicide methods, saying she had depression for as long as she could remember. But by their first one-on-one exchange, she appeared set on jumping. “I hope it works,” wrote Melchert-Dinkel, after she had outlined her plans. They made a pact to “catch the bus” together before exchanging pictures. Melchert-Dinkel sent a fake — apparently to maintain his alias as a female — but Kajouji didn’t. At one point, she even gave him her telephone number.

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Melchert-Dinkel told detectives he had no “sinister intent” in encouraging people to commit suicide. Rather, he thought of himself as an advocate, and openly acknowledged he had a problem. After police interviewed Melchert-Dinkel in January 2009, Minnesota Board of Nursing records show that he checked himself into a hospital for “dealing with addiction to suicide Internet sites.”

Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University professor who has been studying forensic psychiatry for 30 years, says these addiction claims don’t clear up the larger mystery of what would motivate a man to encourage another person to take their own life. “What struck me was the degree of cruelty involved here,” he says. In his experience, he explains, there are only a few categories of people who could be lured toward this behavior: psychopaths, who take pleasure in the pain of others; psychotics, who are seeking to rid the world of “inferior” people; or paraphilics, who are aroused by stimuli others don’t find sexually arousing. “I think this is extraordinarily uncommon,” he says. “Not just over the Internet. In general, people don’t encourage people to kill themselves, certainly not in a repetitive manner.”

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