State of Minnesota v. William Francis Melchert-Dinkel. Constitutionality of MN prohibition of advising or assisting suicide
This case will be included in the Free Conference Call CLE which I will present on March 24.
William Francis Melchert-Dinkel resided in Faribault, Minnesota. He posed online as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse. On suicide websites, he responded to posts by Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada. In order to win their trust, he feigned caring and understanding, and claimed that he planned to commit suicide. He then encouraged them to hang themselves and let him watch the hangings via webcam.
He explained to Drybrough how to commit suicide by tying a rope to a doorknob and slinging the rope over the top of the door. Kajouji had posted that she intended to kill herself by jumping off a bridge wearing ice skates, in an attempt to make her death look like a skating accident. Melchert-Dinkel suggested hanging instead, but apparently was unpersuasive. Kajouji disappeared after sending an e-mail to her friends saying that she was going sakating. Six weeks later, her body was found in a river.
The case was brought to the attention of Minnesota authorities who eventually tracked down Melchert-Dinkel from his IP address. After initially blaming his daughters, Melchert-Dinkel eventually confessed. He was charged in Rice County District Court with aiding suicide in violation of Minnesota Statute 609.215. The case was tried on stipulated facts, and the district court found him guilty. The district court held that he had intentionally advised and encouraged both Drybrough and Kajouji to take their own lives, and that this speech was not protected by the First Amendment. On July 27, 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. Melchert-Dinkel then filed a petition for review with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case. On March 19, 2014, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the case and remanded it.
The state argued that little analysis was required, since the statute prohibited "speech integral to criminal conduct." The Supreme Court disagreed that the case could be dealt with this easily.
The state next argued that the statute amounted to "incitement." which is not protected by the First Amendment. The high court also disagreed with this argument. The court noted that mere advocacy of illegal action in the future is not enough to fall within the incitement exception. It must encourage imminent criminal action. But since suicide is not itself a criminal action, this exception did not apply.
Finally, the state argued that the First Amendment did not apply because the defendant's conduct amounted to fraud, and came under the "deceit, fraud, and lies" exception. But the Supreme Court held that merely because the speech involved a lie did not invoke this exception. For example, it cited United States v. Alvarez, 132 S. Ct. 2537 (2012), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a statute which prohibited lying about the receipt of military decorations or medals.
Even though these arguments failed, the Supreme Court noted that the conviction could be affirmed if the state could show another compelling purpose that withstood constitutional strict scrutiny. In this case, the legitimate public purpose advanced was protecting human life and preventing suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997), held that this was a legitimate government interest. And the Minnesota high court went on to hold that speech targeted to another individual that assisted the other person in commiting suicide was not protected under the First Amendment. For that reason, the court rejected Melchert-Dinkel's argument that he could not be prosecuted.
However, the court also made clear that conduct that merely encouraged or advised suicide was protected by the First Amendment. In order for the defendant to be prosecuted, his conduct must go further and actively assist. Therefore, the court held that Minnesota Statute 609.215 was partially unconstitutional, in that it criminalized "advising" and "encouraging" suicide. But the prohibition against "assisting" is still constitutuionally valid.
The court then looked at the conviction in this case, and noted that the lower court had not made any findings as to whether Melchert-Dinkel had assisted in these two suicides. The trial court had convicted merely for advising and encouraging. Therefore, it reversed the conviction, but sent it back to the lower court for further proceedings. The district court will need to examine the evidence and determine whether Melchert-Dinkel's speech assisted either of the victims.
The Supreme Court's opinion was authored by Justice Anderson. Justices Wright and Lillehaug did not take part in the case. Justice Page dissented. He agreed that the provisions against advising and encouraging were unconstitutional. However, he determined that the lower court had already considered the question of whether Melchert-Dinkel had assisted in the suicides, and intentionally omitted this word from the findings. Therefore, he believed that there was no reason to remand the case to the district court.
No. No. A11-0987 (Minn. Feb. 19, 2014).
Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.
Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).
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