A Minnesota appeal court upheld the conviction of former U.S. nurse William Melchert-Dinkel on Tuesday.
The 49-year-old from Faribault, Minn., was found to have scanned online chat rooms for suicidal people while posing as a female nurse before giving 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji and a British man instructions on how to kill themselves.
Kajouji was a student at Carleton University in Ottawa when she jumped into a frozen river in 2008 after several conversations with Melchert-Dinkel.
Her older brother, Marc Kajouji, said the way Melchert-Dinkel's legal proceedings have dragged on for years made it a little bit harder for the family to gain closure.
"You know nothing is going to bring my sister back so really it doesn't matter what anybody does or how anyone's punished. The worst punishment has already been handed down, and that happened March 8, 2008," he said, referring to the day his sister took her own life.
His sister's death has, however, driven him to reach out to others touched by suicide.
"(It's about) being able to save others, because nothing is going to bring Nadia back," he said, adding that he uses his sister's story as a "reason to hold on to life."
Melchert-Dinkel was convicted last year of two counts of aiding suicide — in Nadia Kajouji's death and in the 2005 hanging death of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, England.
Melchert-Dinkel acknowledged what he did was morally wrong but argued he had merely exercised his right to free speech. He had said the Minnesota law used to convict him was unconstitutional.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed, saying Tuesday that the First Amendment does not bar the state from prosecuting someone for "instructing (suicidal people on) how to kill themselves and coaxing them to do so."
"We are confident that the Constitution does not immunize Melchert-Dinkel's morbid, predatory behaviour simply because it appears in the form of written words," the justices' 31-page decision said.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said that while his client's actions are unsavoury, he still believes they are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. He plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Court documents show Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and searched online for depressed people. When he found them, he posed as a suicidal female nurse, feigned compassion and offered instructions on how they could kill themselves.
Melchert-Dinkel told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase."
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.
More than four years after his sister's death, Marc Kajouji has been able to turn his grief into fuel for raising awareness about suicide.
He became involved with a suicide prevention organization, YourLifeCounts.org, and believes the pain of his sister's death has inspired his family to support others in similar situations.
"You know, part of me didn't want to get involved because it's a constant reminder of why I'm doing the work," he said. "But you have to do things for others when you go through such a tragedy."
The Kajouji family is still coping with their loss in many ways.
"You just have to deal with it as a family day by day and kind of realize that as her birthday came on June 8th, there's no birthday that we can celebrate with her," he said.
"I think it's the holiday dates and the anniversary dates of her missing and taking her own life are what makes it the hardest."
Evidence has shown that in the days before her death, Nadia Kajouji was participating in online chats with Melchert-Dinkel, who was claiming to be a 31-year-old emergency room nurse with the username "Cami."
Kajouji had said she wanted to commit suicide but was afraid of failing.
On March 1, 2008, when Kajouji said she planned to jump into a river the following Sunday, Cami said they would hang themselves together the next day.
"We are together in this,'' Kajouji wrote.
"Yes I promise, Monday will be my day,'' Cami replied.
Ottawa police said Kajouji disappeared March 9, 2008. Her body was found six weeks later.
During Melchert-Dinkel's appeals process, his lawyer argued that his client didn't talk anyone into suicide but instead offered emotional support to two people who had already decided to take their lives.
Prosecutors said he convinced his victims to do something they might not have done without him.
The appeals court agreed. The justices noted that both Kajouji and Drybrough died shortly after Melchert-Dinkel sent each of them a series of Internet messages "prodding them to kill themselves."
They said Melchert-Dinkel "encouraged" Kajouji by "fortifying her suicide decision through deceit."
"Put in its true light, Melchert-Dinkel hunted emotionally vulnerable persons — pitiable victims of obvious mental illness who stood precariously on the edge of death," the justices wrote. "Then, veiled behind a fictitious identity and deceitful words ... he pushed."
Melchert-Dinkel was sentenced to more than six years in prison, but he won't serve that if he follows terms of his parole, which include 360 days in jail.
The jail time — which was on hold while his appeal was pending — was split so he'll serve 320 days upfront, then two-day stints on the anniversary of each victim's death for 10 years.
Melchert-Dinkel's nursing license was revoked in 2009.