On Nov. 27, 2005, a man in Faribault, Minn., received an e-mail with a subject line that read, "Melissa goodbye to Li Dao." It was a suicide note, scribbled digitally, sent by a woman to her online pen pal who had actively encouraged her to embrace death. The only catch: Li Dao was not a real person, and, according to authorities, the virtual advice was not an act of empathy but an attempt to manipulate Melissa into taking her own life all for what the man told the police was the "the thrill of the chase."
Li Dao was one of the several aliases used by 48-year-old William Melchert-Dinkel, who would impersonate a female nurse and advise people on suicide methods in online chat rooms. Melissa was one of the dozens of victims he encouraged to commit suicide by feigning compassion. "Having your support is going to help me muster up the strength to go through with this," Melissa wrote to him. Melchert-Dinkel (who was a registered nurse at the time) then replied, advising Melissa to stay calm while she took her own life: "Just let yourself down on the rope and let go."
Documents from the police investigation do not specify what ultimately happened to Melissa, nor what came of the handful of others who shared their suicidal thoughts with Melchert-Dinkel in online exchanges. When detectives interviewed Melchert-Dinkel at his house in January 2009, with his family members present, he openly admitted to asking 15 to 20 people if he could watch while they committed suicide and estimated that he assisted five or fewer people in following through with their plans. Police later collected evidence from his computer hard drive that pointed to Melchert-Dinkel's direct involvement in the deaths of a Canadian woman in 2008 and an English man in 2005 enough evidence, they believed, to bring a trial under Minnesota's assisted-suicide statute. Rice County attorney Paul Beaumaster, who prosecuted the case, calls Melchert-Dinkel's conduct egregious. "This was fraud," he explains. "It was fraud to encourage them to take their own lives, and he did it for his own sport. To me that was an aggravating factor."
The chilling case has fascinated legal experts, who say it poses a unique test of the criminal-justice system and of the First Amendment's freedom-of-speech guarantees. Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, maintains his client's online interactions were protected under the First Amendment. "Someone has to make an inference whether those conversations, beyond a level of reasonable doubt, represent encouragement that in fact had a direct and imminent role in their decision to commit suicide," he says. "Obviously the victims aren't here to testify as to what, if any, point the conversations had to do with their eventual decision. So you're speculating from square one all the way up."
In a typical assisted-suicide conviction, an element of physical conduct exists like Jack Kevorkian's construction of a suicide machine. But Melchert-Dinkel wasn't even in the same country as his targets in the two cases brought to trial, and the state's evidence against him consists primarily of online exchanges words, instant messages, etc. that, by Watkins' argument, would fall under protected speech. He's not alone: Raleigh Levine, a constitutional-law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., has been closely following the case and says that to start restricting speech because it might prompt listeners to kill or harm themselves is dangerous territory. Furthermore, Levine notes that in this case, the immediacy factor is missing: Melchert-Dinkel's victims "didn't instantly kill themselves," she says. "You have to be advocating illegal activity and there has to be this nexus of activity."
In March, Third District Court Judge Thomas Neuville found Melchert-Dinkel guilty on two counts of violating Minnesota's assisted-suicide statute, labeling his communications "lethal advocacy," which he said was analogous to a category of unprotected speech known as fighting words. "Encouraging and advising suicide through speech is the same as inciting a fight or an assault with words," he ruled, specifying that it is in the government's compelling interest to protect the lives of its citizens who are particularly vulnerable to suicidal tendencies.