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Saturday 20 September 2014

'Suicide voyeur' has case overturned over free speech

Philip Sherwell in New York

Published 20/03/2014 | 02:30

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American William Melchert-Dinkel (centre) has had his conviction of two counts of assisting suicide overturned on free speech grounds
American William Melchert-Dinkel (centre) has had his conviction of two counts of assisting suicide overturned on free speech grounds
18-year-old Nadia Kajouji killed herself by jumping into a frozen river in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008
18-year-old Nadia Kajouji killed herself by jumping into a frozen river in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008

THE conviction of an American "suicide voyeur" who encouraged a British man and Canadian woman to take their own lives in an internet chat room has been overturned on free speech grounds.

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After the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, a lower court must now decide whether to bring fresh charges against William Melchert-Dinkel, a former male nurse, who was convicted on two rare counts of assisted suicide in 2011.

He was found guilty of aiding the suicide of Mark Dryborough (32) who hanged himself in Coventry in 2005, and of Nadia Kajouji (18) who jumped into a frozen river in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008.

In the original trial, the court was told that Mr Melchert-Dinkel posed online as a compassionate female nurse to prey on depressed individuals, but then gave them advice on how to commit suicide.

He allegedly told police that he acted for the "thrill of the chase" and wanted to watch his targets die via a computer webcam.

But in a ruling eagerly awaited across the United States by both sides in the assisted suicide debate, the state supreme court has ruled that a state law prohibiting "advising" and "encouraging" suicide broke the constitution by restricting freedom of speech.

However, it upheld the part of the statute that outlaws "assisting" suicide and sent Mr Melchert-Dinkel's case back to a lower court.

County prosecutors must now decide whether to appeal against the ruling in the US Supreme Court or to bring fresh charges against Mr Melchert-Dinkel for assisting suicide. "We did not dispute the facts of the case, but our argument was always that what Mr Melchert-Dinkel did was protected as free speech and that he did not assist the acts of suicide," Terry Watkins, his lawyer, said.

"We are not condoning his actions and there is no attempt to suggest that anything he did is anything but salacious, immoral or depraved.

"But we believe this it was protected by the first amendment of the constitution."

Mr Melchert-Dinkel's original 360-day sentence had been on hold pending the outcome of the appeal. Prosecutors argued that his speech was not protected under the law and that he allegedly played a key role in the deaths, including giving step-by-step instructions.

BREAKDOWN

According to court documents, he acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10, five of whom he believed killed themselves.

He was charged in 2010 following amateur investigative work to identify him by three British women, including Mr Dryborough's mother Elaine. She joined forces with Katherine Lowe, from Wolverhampton, who said that he had also encouraged her to commit suicide, and Celia Bray, who became involved after a friend entered an online suicide pact.

Among the findings passed to American investigators was an email found on Mr Dryborough's computer, and allegedly traced back to Mr Melchert-Dinkel, detailing how to commit suicide by hanging. "Mark was just coming through a nervous breakdown at the time and was incredibly susceptible at that point," Ms Dryborough said at the time.

"This person was there 'whispering in his ear' every time he logged on."

Mr Melchert-Dinkel lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in Faribault, a small town in the hilly Minnesota countryside, where neighbours described him as a regular churchgoer and a "great dad". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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