FARIBAULT, Minn. (AP) — A former nurse in Minnesota who admitted to going online years ago and preying upon suicidal people — encouraging two to take their lives — must serve 178 days in jail as part of a sentence handed down Wednesday.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 52, was sentenced to three years in prison in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman, but he won't have to serve the prison term if he complies with conditions of his probation that include the jail time. Melchert-Dinkel must report to the local jail on Oct. 24.
"I am sorry ... for my actions and what I have done," Melchert-Dinkel said in court before he was sentenced. "I have repented."
Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in September of one count of assisting a suicide and one count of attempting to assist a suicide in a case that has played out for years and resulted in a reversal of his prior convictions and a change to Minnesota law. This is how the case has played out:
HOW IT BEGAN
Minnesota authorities began investigating in March 2008 after an anti-suicide activist in Britain claimed someone in the state was using the Internet to manipulate people into killing themselves. Authorities found emails in which Melchert-Dinkel gave a man technical advice on how to hang himself, and they found online chats in which Melchert-Dinkel tried to talk a woman out of her plans to jump into the river and instead hang herself with him.
He was ultimately convicted in the deaths of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England. Kajouji jumped into a frozen river in 2008, and Drybrough hanged himself in 2005.
Authorities said Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and hanging and sought out potential victims online. When he found them, prosecutors said, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves. Court records show Melchert-Dinkel told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase."
Prosecutors said he acknowledged entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
THE FIRST CONVICTION
Melchert-Dinkel was charged with aiding the suicides of Drybrough and Kajouji and convicted in 2011 by Rice County Judge Thomas Neuville, who found that he "intentionally advised and encouraged" the victims to take their lives.
Defense attorney Terry Watkins appealed, saying Melchert-Dinkel's actions might have been immoral, but they were not illegal. Melchert-Dinkel remained free on appeal.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Melchert-Dinkel's convictions earlier this year. The justices found that part of Minnesota's law that bans someone from "encouraging" or "advising" suicide is unconstitutional because it encompasses speech protected under the First Amendment.
But the justices upheld part of the law that makes it a crime to "assist" in someone's suicide — and said speech could be considered assisting. The case went back to Neuville, who ruled last month that Melchert-Dinkel assisted in Drybrough's suicide and attempted to assist Kajouji's suicide, because she ultimately rejected his advice to hang herself and jumped into the river instead.
Melchert-Dinkel apologized Wednesday and said his actions hurt his family and that he wanted to continue to be a productive member of society.
Neuville said Melchert-Dinkel must face consequences.
"I believe you and your family have suffered. My sentence is also an attempt to recognize the need for justice to the victims," he said.
Melchert-Dinkel will avoid prison if he abides by probation terms for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, his attorney Watkins says he thinks he has good grounds for appeal, arguing Melchert-Dinkel wouldn't have waived his right to a jury trial and that Watkins would have mounted a different defense under the law as narrowed by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said Wednesday's sentence affirms that what Melchert-Dinkel did was wrong.
"Am I satisfied that justice was done? Yes," Beaumaster said. "He has been held accountable."
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