MINNEAPOLIS - A former Minnesota nurse who admitted going online and encouraging people to kill themselves was convicted Tuesday of assisting the suicide of an English man and attempting to assist in the suicide of a Canadian woman.
The convictions follow a legal battle that spanned more than four years and that led to the reversal of part of a Minnesota law that outlaws the practice.
Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville ruled that the state proved that William Melchert-Dinkel, 52, assisted in the suicide of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England.
He said the state failed to prove Melchert-Dinkel 's assistance was a direct cause of the suicide of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ont., but found him guilty on a lesser charge of attempting to help her take her life.
Melchert-Dinkel plans to appeal, said his attorney, Terry Watkins. He said his client has "never pretended" that his actions were right, but they still believe they weren't a crime.
"I don't think we're anywhere near the end of this journey," Watkins said.
But the prosecutor, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, said the judge meticulously followed a Minnesota Supreme Court decision from last March that narrowed the state's assisted suicide law.
"This has been a rather long and drawn out process, which has been difficult for the families," Beaumaster said. "... I really hope this helps the families find some closure."
The mothers of Kajouji and Drybrough did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Neuville scheduled a sentencing hearing for Oct. 15. The same judge had also convicted Melchert-Dinkel in 2011 of encouraging the two suicides but put his 360-day jail sentence on hold pending appeals.
"The Defendant did not physically assist either Drybrough or Kajouji in taking their own life," the judge wrote in a ruling dated Monday but not released until Tuesday. "However, there is significant evidence that the Defendant assisted Drybrough, and attempted to assist Kajouji, commit suicide by providing them with specific instructions and methodology for completing the suicide."
Kajouji jumped into a frozen river in 2008. She was a student at Carleton University in Ottawa at the time. Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
In his ruling, Neuville said Melchert-Dinkel provided both Drybrough and Kajouji with detailed information about how to hang themselves, and that Drybrough followed his instructions. However, he noted that while the defendant gave Kajouji detailed and specific instructions about hanging, she did not follow them and chose another method. So the judge said Melchert-Dinkel was guilty only of attempting to assist her suicide.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Melchert-Dinkel 's original conviction in March, saying part of the state law that made it illegal to "advise" or "encourage" suicides was an unconstitutionally broad restriction on free speech. However, the justices upheld a part of the law that makes it a crime to "assist" in someone's suicide. The ruling said speech alone can be used to assist or enable a suicide if it is narrowly targeted to one person and provides that person with what is needed to carry out the act.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings because the judge did not rule at the time on whether Melchert-Dinkel actually assisted in the two suicides.
Evidence in the case showed Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and sought out depressed people online. He posed as a suicidal female nurse, feigning compassion and offering step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves. 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.