MINNEAPOLIS – A former Minnesota nurse convicted of aiding suicides by trolling Internet chat rooms and encouraging depressed people to kill themselves could see little or no time behind bars when he is sentenced Wednesday.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, was convicted in March of two counts of aiding suicide in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman. Under state law, he faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine for each count, but worksheets prepared by prosecutors call for much less — and presume that a prison sentence would be stayed.
Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville, who convicted Melchert-Dinkel in March, will be the one who decides the sentence after hearing the recommendations of prosecutors and defense attorneys and any comments from the victims' families.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and hanging and sought out potential victims online. They say he posed as a suicidal female nurse to win his victims' trust, then entered false suicide pacts and offered detailed instructions on how people could take their own lives.
Court documents say Melchert-Dinkel, a former nurse from the southern Minnesota town of Fairbault, told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase." He acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
Melchert-Dinkel declined a jury trial, leaving Neuville to decide whether he was guilty. He was convicted in the death of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005; and in the death of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
Defense attorney Terry Watkins doesn't dispute prosecutors' account but insists Melcher-Dinkel's activities were protected speech and did not rise to the level of a crime. Watkins plans to appeal the convictions.
Neuville strongly rejected defense arguments, writing in his March ruling that Melchert-Dinkel's "speech imminently incited the victims to commit suicide, and can be described as 'lethal advocacy,' which is analogous to the category of unprotected speech known as 'fighting words' and 'imminent incitement of lawlessness.'"
Deborah Chevalier, Kajouji's mother, plans to appear at Wednesday's hearing. Family members for Drybrough have declined.
"I'm expecting the worst and hoping for the best," Chevalier said Tuesday.
Minnesota's sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure uniform sentences for those convicted of similar crimes. Most crimes are given a ranking based on their severity. Then, taking a defendant's criminal history into account, an appropriate sentence is applied. But aiding suicide is so unusual — only six people have been sentenced for the crime since 1991 — that it is "unranked."
"The key player in this whole thing is the judge," said defense attorney Terry Watkins.
Bradford Colbert, law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said the judge will consider the gravity of the conduct, as well as cases of similar offenders. He said the judge has "a lot of discretion."
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said two worksheets were prepared as part of the presentencing report: One ranks the offense as a six, with a prison sentence of 27 months, while the other ranks it as a seven, with a prison sentence of 42 months. Both rankings assume the sentence would be stayed, meaning Melchert-Dinkel wouldn't go to prison unless he violated terms of probation. Probation could be up to 15 years and include up to a year of jail time.
Beaumaster said he saw the six ranking as a case involving someone who entered a suicide pact but decided not to kill himself at the last minute. In this case, Beaumaster said, Melchert-Dinkel never intended to take his own life.
"I do think there is an extra element here of fraud in the inducement, encouragement. For me that was an aggravating factor," Beaumaster said.
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