Assisted Suicide Goes Digital: When Is a Chat-Room Post a Crime?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Richard Sennott / Minneapolis Star Tribune / ZUMA Press

William Melchert-Dinkel leaves a courthouse in Faribault, Minn., with his wife on May 4, 2011, after being sentenced for encouraging two people to commit suicide

(2 of 2)

Last week, Neuville handed down his sentence. The judge ruled that Melchert-Dinkel's 2005 e-mails to Mark Drybrough, advising him on the methods of hanging — "just a sturdy knot is all one needs" — and his 2008 instant messages with Nadia Kajouji, suggesting they hang themselves together while on webcam — "what sort of rope, etc will [I] need?" she asked — warranted putting Melchert-Dinkel behind bars for 360 days. It was far less than the statutory maximum of 30 years, and the judge decreed that only 320 days were to be served consecutively; afterward, Melchert-Dinkel must report back to jail for two days on the anniversary of each of his victims' deaths until his sentence is complete. He must also pay restitution and seek psychological help.

Any restitution will come too late for the men and women Melchert-Dinkel encouraged to end their lives. According to court documents, Drybrough originally posted a message on a chat room weeks before his death, asking for help in learning about hanging methods. For a while, he was also seeking information on overdosing. Melchert-Dinkel responded to those queries on July 18, 2005, saying that hanging is "by far the best and surest method — and the method I am using also." As their e-mail exchanges continued the following week, Drybrough confided to Melchert-Dinkel the story behind his depression, saying he had become ill with glandular fever years ago and never really recovered. He was losing hope, but still remained uncertain about death. "I haven't set a date for my suicide, though each day is as good as the next for going ahead with it," he wrote.

In their last e-mail exchange, Drybrough wrote that he had reservations. "If you want someone who's suicidal, I'm just not there yet," he wrote to Melchert-Dinkel. Four to five days later, with no additional e-mails shown in court records, Drybrough's sister discovered him hanging from a ladder inside his apartment in Coventry, England. The IT technician was 32 years old.

Kajouji, 18, a college freshman at Carleton University in Ottawa, chose not to follow Melchert-Dinkel's advice in hanging herself, instead choosing to jump into an icy river. In their exchanges, he pretended to be a female nurse and made such a determined case for hanging that the last question he ever asked her in an instant message — posed only hours before her death — was whether she had a rope for a backup plan. Kajouji had originally posted to chat rooms seeking help for successful suicide methods, saying she had depression for as long as she could remember. But by their first one-on-one exchange, she appeared set on jumping. "I hope it works," wrote Melchert-Dinkel, after she had outlined her plans. They made a pact to "catch the bus" together before exchanging pictures. Melchert-Dinkel sent a fake — apparently to maintain his alias as a female — but Kajouji didn't. At one point, she even gave him her telephone number.

Melchert-Dinkel told detectives he had no "sinister intent" in encouraging people to commit suicide. Rather, he thought of himself as an advocate, and openly acknowledged he had a problem. After police interviewed Melchert-Dinkel in January 2009, Minnesota Board of Nursing records show that he checked himself into a hospital for "dealing with addiction to suicide Internet sites."

Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University professor who has been studying forensic psychiatry for 30 years, says these addiction claims don't clear up the larger mystery of what would motivate a man to encourage another person to take their own life. "What struck me was the degree of cruelty involved here," he says. In his experience, he explains, there are only a few categories of people who could be lured toward this behavior: psychopaths, who take pleasure in the pain of others; psychotics, who are seeking to rid the world of "inferior" people; or paraphilics, who are aroused by stimuli others don't find sexually arousing. "I think this is extraordinarily uncommon," he says. "Not just over the Internet. In general, people don't encourage people to kill themselves, certainly not in a repetitive manner."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next