(Adds comments for attorney for ex-nurse in paragraphs 5-6)
MINNEAPOLIS, March 19 (Reuters) - The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed a former nurse’s convictions for coaxing two depressed people to kill themselves, ruling that parts of a state law making it a crime to encourage or advise a suicide are unconstitutional.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 51, was convicted in 2011 of encouraging and advising a British man and a Canadian woman to kill themselves within days of chatting online or exchanging emails with him. He was sentenced to a year in jail, but has been free while the case was being appealed.
The court ruled that while the state has a compelling interest in preserving life, the state’s prohibition on advising or encouraging suicide was too broad, because even a general discussion of suicide would be illegal.
The state Supreme Court upheld a part of the state law that makes it a crime to assist a suicide, finding that it was drawn narrowly enough to focus on an individual, and returned the case to the trial judge for further proceedings.
Melchert-Dinkel’s attorney, Terry Watkins, said Wednesday there was encouragement and advising, but no evidence in the case that his client had assisted the suicides.
“Certainly we are not condoning the actions in any way, shape or form. We are simply saying that as troubling as the speech may have been it is protected,” Wallace said.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster could not be reached immediately for comment.
Melchert-Dinkel had posed online as a suicidal female nurse and advised people on the length and thickness of rope needed for a successful hanging among other topics. He argued that his conduct amounted to free speech.
Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, hanged himself at his home in July 2005. Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Ottawa, jumped into a river in March 2008 wearing ice skates.
A British woman who had frequented a chat room where people discussed suicidal thoughts warned police in 2008 that she suspected an online predator was encouraging suicides. Police linked Melchert-Dinkel to related email addresses.
He told police during an interview he had participated in suicide-related chat rooms for about four years, had asked people to transmit their suicides online using a webcam and had entered into suicide pacts with no plans to kill himself, according to court papers.
Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, Minnesota, had entered a plea in which he accepted the evidence against him and allowed Judge Thomas Neuville to decide whether his actions constituted a crime while preserving his right to appeal. (Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Scott Malone, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)