844 N.W.2d 13 (Minn. 2014), A11-0987, State v. Melchert-Dinkel

Docket NºA11-0987
Citation844 N.W.2d 13
Opinion JudgeANDERSON, Justice.
Party NameState of Minnesota, Respondent, v. William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, Appellant
AttorneyLori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and G. Paul Beaumaster, Rice County Attorney, Terence Swihart, Assistant County Attorney, Benjamin Bejar, Assistant County Attorney, Faribault, Minnesota, for respondent. Terry A. Watkins, Watkins Law Office, LLC, Faribault, Minnesota, for ap...
Judge PanelANDERSON, Justice. Dissenting, Page, J. Took no part, Wright, and Lillehaug, JJ. WRIGHT, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. LILLEHAUG, J. PAGE, Justice (dissenting).
Case DateMarch 19, 2014
CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota

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844 N.W.2d 13 (Minn. 2014)

State of Minnesota, Respondent,

v.

William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, Appellant

No. A11-0987

Supreme Court of Minnesota

March 19, 2014

As Amended March 20, 2014.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Court of Appeals.

SYLLABUS

1. The speech prohibited by Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 (2012), does not fall within the " speech integral to criminal conduct" or " incitement" categories of unprotected First Amendment speech.

2. The specific speech used by Melchert-Dinkel in this case does not fall within the " fraud" category of unprotected First Amendment speech.

3. The statutory prohibition against assisting another to commit suicide does not violate the First Amendment because it is narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest.

4. The statutory prohibitions against encouraging and advising another to commit suicide violate the First Amendment because they are not narrowly drawn to serve a compelling government interest.

5. The terms " advises" and " encourages" are severed from Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1, as unconstitutional.

6. Because the district court made no findings regarding whether appellant assisted the victims' suicides, a remand is required.

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and G. Paul Beaumaster, Rice County Attorney, Terence Swihart, Assistant County Attorney, Benjamin Bejar, Assistant County Attorney, Faribault, Minnesota, for respondent.

Terry A. Watkins, Watkins Law Office, LLC, Faribault, Minnesota, for appellant.

Cort C. Holten, Jeffrey D. Bores, Chestnut Cambronne PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Defense Fund.

Robert Rivas, Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., Tallahassee, Florida, for amici curiae Final Exit Network, Inc. and Jerry Dincin.

Kyle White, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota.

ANDERSON, Justice. Dissenting, Page, J. Took no part, Wright, and Lillehaug, JJ.

OPINION

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ANDERSON, Justice.

After communicating with appellant William Melchert-Dinkel, Mark Drybrough and Nadia Kajouji each committed suicide. This appeal presents the issue of whether the State of Minnesota may, consistent with the First Amendment, prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for advising, encouraging, or assisting another in committing suicide in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 (2012), which makes it illegal to " intentionally advise[], encourage[], or assist[] another in taking the other's own life." We conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide.1 Because the district court did not make a specific finding on whether Melchert-Dinkel assisted the victims' suicides, we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Melchert-Dinkel, a resident of Faribault, was convicted of two counts of aiding suicide under Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1. Posing as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse, Melchert-Dinkel responded to posts on suicide websites by Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada. In each case, he feigned caring and understanding to win the trust of the victims while encouraging each to hang themselves, falsely claiming that he would also commit suicide, and attempting to persuade them to let him watch the hangings via webcam.

Drybrough, who was 32 years old at the time Melchert-Dinkel contacted him in 2005, had suffered from significant mental and physical health problems for many years, including a condition that was " like having [the] flu all the time." His contact with Melchert-Dinkel began after the appellant responded to Drybrough's posting in an online forum about suicide asking about methods to commit suicide by hanging without " access to anything high up to tie the rope to." Melchert-Dinkel described how to commit suicide by hanging by tying a rope to a doorknob and slinging the rope over the top of the door.

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In a series of online conversations with Melchert-Dinkel, Drybrough described an existence in which he was trapped between a life so miserable he wanted to end it, and the fear, uncertainty, and even occasional bouts of hope for a better future that prevented him from following through on his suicidal thoughts. Drybrough described practicing the hanging method Melchert-Dinkel taught him, but he was unable to fully commit and worried about his parents seeing the marks on his neck. Through all of this, Melchert-Dinkel presented himself as a compassionate and caring nurse, who not only could relate to Drybrough's misery, but also could provide practical advice due to her medical experience. He told Drybrough that he hoped " to be a [friend] at the end for you [as you] are for me." In Drybrough's last message, sent on July 23, 2005, he told Melchert-Dinkel that he was scared:

I keep holding on to the hope that things might change. . . . I'm dying but slowly, day by day. I don't want to waste [anyone's] time. If you want someone who's suicidal, I'm just not there yet. You either do it or you don't, and I don't and [haven't]. [I'm] used to being alone. Sorry. I admire your courage, I wish I had it.

Drybrough hanged himself four days later.

On March 1, 2008, 19-year-old Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Canada, posted a message on a suicide website asking for advice on suicide methods that would be quick, reliable, and appear to be an accident to her family and friends. Five days later, Melchert-Dinkel responded, pretending to be a 31-year-old emergency room nurse who was also suicidal. Again, he presented himself as a caring and compassionate friend who understood Kajouji's plight and wanted to help.

Kajouji described her plan to jump off a bridge into a hole in the ice covering the river below while wearing ice skates, which she hoped would make her death look like an accident. Melchert-Dinkel tried repeatedly to dissuade her from her plan and convince her instead to hang herself. He also made oblique attempts to persuade her to kill herself immediately, saying they " would die today if we could" and " I wish [we both] could die now."

Melchert-Dinkel had a short instant message conversation with Kajouji on March 9, in which Kajouji informed him that she would be following through with her bridge-jumping plan later that night. Melchert-Dinkel suggested hanging one last time and claimed that he would be committing suicide the next day. Kajouji sent an e-mail to her roommates that night saying that she was going ice-skating. She was never seen again. Six weeks later, her body, ice skates still attached, was found in the river.

After being contacted by an individual concerned about an online predator who was encouraging people to commit suicide by hanging, Minnesota law enforcement officials eventually determined that both Drybrough and Kajouji had engaged in e-mail and chat communications with someone using different accounts but the same IP address. They tracked the address to Melchert-Dinkel's computer, and after initially blaming his daughters, Melchert-Dinkel confessed to communicating with Drybrough and Kajouji.

Melchert-Dinkel was tried in the Rice County District Court on two counts of aiding suicide under Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1. He agreed to a stipulated facts trial to preserve his right to appeal his convictions based on sufficiency of the evidence. The district court found him guilty on both counts. The district court specifically found that Melchert-Dinkel " intentionally advised and encouraged " both Drybrough and Kajouji to take their own

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lives, concluding that the speech at issue fell outside the protections of the First Amendment. State v. Melchert-Dinkel, No. 66-CR-10-1193, Order at 28, 32 (Rice Cnty. Dist. Ct. filed March 15, 2011) (emphasis added).

On appeal to the court of appeals, Melchert-Dinkel argued that Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1, violates the First Amendment on its face and as applied to his specific speech. The State argued that, on its face, the statute prohibits speech that is not protected by the First Amendment--specifically speech that is " integral to [an] unlawful act" or that " imminently incites lawless conduct." Additionally, the State argued that, even if the statute reaches some speech that is protected by the First Amendment, the statute is constitutional because it is narrowly tailored to serve the State's compelling interests in preserving life and protecting vulnerable members of society. Concluding that " speech that intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another to commit suicide is an integral part" of both " the criminal conduct of physically assisting suicide" and another person's suicide, which is " harmful conduct that the state opposes as a matter of public policy," the court of appeals held that Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1, prohibits speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment. State v. Melchert-Dinkel, 816 N.W.2d 703, 714 (Minn.App. 2012). The court of appeals also held that there is " no apparent unconstitutional overbreadth because the statute covers so little, and the broad arena of pro-suicide speech not proscribed by the statute includes the full spectrum of social or political communication on the topic." Id. at 715. Melchert-Dinkel filed a petition for review, which we granted.2

The question before us is whether the State can, consistent with the First Amendment, prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting, advising, or encouraging another in committing suicide. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide.

I.

We review the constitutionality of statutes de novo. Associated Builders & Contractors v. Ventura, 610 N.W.2d...

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