Criminal Justice

Ex-nurse gets jail time for 'assisting' suicide in comments made on Internet chat boards

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After years of legal battle, it appears that a former nurse may be headed to jail for assisting and attempting to assist the suicide of two individuals outside the U.S. through comments he made on Internet chat boards.

Described as a morbid predator by a Minnesota appeals court that upheld his initial conviction, William Melchert-Dinkel took a plea last month in a new case brought after the state supreme court said the Minnesota law on which his first conviction was based was too broad to survive a free-speech challenge.

On Wednesday, the 52-year-old was ordered to spend 178 days in jail, beginning Oct. 24, the Associated Press reports. It isn’t clear from initial news reports how this sentence will interact with Melchert-Dinkel’s stated plan, when he was convicted last month, to appeal again on free-speech grounds.

While state law could not constitutionally prohibit individuals from advising or encouraging suicide in online comments, the First Amendment does not preclude a ban on assisting another person’s suicide through online comments, the Minnesota Supreme Court explained in a March ruling (PDF). It narrowed the law and sent the case back to Rice County for retrial.

Last month, District Judge Thomas Neuville found that Melchert-Dinkel had provided detailed instructions to a British man and a Canadian woman about hanging themselves. The man did so in 2005. However, the woman committed suicide by another method in 2008. Hence, the defendant was convicted of attempting to assist her suicide and assisting the man’s suicide, the Associated Press reported last month.

A subsequent Associated Press story noted the defendant’s plan to appeal.

Evidence in the case showed that Melchert-Dinkel admitted posing as a female nurse, seeking out depressed individuals on the Internet, feigning sympathy and urging them to take their own lives, Reuters reported. He said he chatted online with as many as 20 such individuals, agreeing with about half that he, too, would commit suicide if they did, the AP reported.

Melchert-Dinkel believes as many as five may have killed themselves, according to AP.

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