The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the convictions of a former nurse accused of encouraging two people he met online to kill themselves and deemed part of a state law that makes it illegal to encourage suicide unconstitutional.
The court ruled that the language in the state's assisted-suicide law is unconstitutional when it comes to "encouraging" suicides, but it found the part of the law that bans "assisting" suicide is constitutional, the Associated Press says.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 51, worked as a licensed practical nurse in a Fairbault nursing home. He was accused of seeking out depressed people in online suicide chat rooms and offering instructions on how they could kill themselves, and he lost his license as a result of the allegations.
Melchert-Dinkel was convicted on two counts of "encouraging, advising or assisting another in committing suicide" in the deaths of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005; and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008. In 2011, he was sentenced to a year in jail, but the sentence has been on hold pending the outcome of his appeal.
In July 2012, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court and affirmed the conviction. Melchert-Dinkel then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Melchert-Dinkel argued that the law was too broad and his conduct was protected speech.
In Wednesday's decision, the Supreme Court said the portion of the law that criminalizes "assisting" suicide does not violate the First Amendment "because it is narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest," the Fairbault Daily News says. But the district court made no findings about whether Melchert-Dinkel "assisted" in the suicides – he had been convicted on the basis of "encouraging" suicide, according to the Pioneer Press. So the high court sent the case against Melchert-Dinkel back to the district court for more hearings on the issue of whether he assisted in the suicides.
The Minnesota Supreme Court will also hear arguments in a similar case, but proceedings in that case have been stayed pending the outcome of the Melchert-Dinkel case, the Pioneer Press reports. In that case, members of the Final Exit Network are accused of helping former musician Doreen Dunn, 57, of Apple Valley commit suicide in May 2007.