Internet assisted suicide not free speech

The motion brought by William Melchert-Dinkel that encouraging his victims to commit suicide over the Internet is protected by Free Speech by the US Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution was denied by a Court. In the state of Minnesota, as in other US states, assisted suicide is a crime. Melchert-Dinkel has been charged with counselling or encouraging the suicide of 18 year old Nadia Kajouji, 32 year old Mark Drybrough and several other persons of committing suicide.

However the Court’s finding was that “the encouragement of a principal to take a course of action he might not otherwise have taken can be accomplished through speech.” This is a significant precedent as many recent tragedies indicate that speech and in particular internet speech has been a very powerful form of speech with lethal consequences.

The issue is far from an academic one as the internet has come to play a big role in many teen related suicides. In 2003, 13-year-old Ryan Halligan hung himself after being cyberbullied, choosing to end his life after meeting another depressed teenager who encouraged him to commit suicide. His story is found here The tragic suicide of Megan Meier in 2006 led to much more publicity about the dark side of the internet.

There have been many internet inspired suicides, whether arising out of cyber bullying, encouragement to commit suicide or perhaps a combination of both. The suicide of Alex Wildman in 2008 lead to a coroner’s inquest who called for the revision of a policy by the New South Wales Department of Education on cyber bullying.

The debate relating to the connection between internet and suicide continued when seven young people took their lives in the UK, as a result of a social networking link between suicidal teenagers engaging in copycat suicides inspired by a website. The element of glorification which seems to be surrounding internet related suicides makes one reluctant to even write about the issue.

As suicide is prevalent amongst teenagers it is difficult to state with precision how many suicides can be directly connected to the internet, or for that matter how many teen suicides may have been averted through counselling and self-help groups assisting those who are suicidal.

The alt-suicide-holiday Google group was the venue where William Melchert-Dinkel appeared to have actively sought out depressed people online, engaging them in conversation and encouraging and issuing them with advice as to how to commit suicide.

Melchert-Dinkel was allegedly obsessed with the topic of suicide and hanging, surfing the internet for potential victims. He took advantage of their vulnerabilities by feigning compassion, affording detailed instruction on committing suicide and entered into bogus suicide pacts with his victims.

If not for the actions and persistence of Celia Blay, a 65-year-old unpaid, untrained and computer illiterate lady from a small community, his crimes may never have been discovered. She described how she tried many times to talk to Police who didn’t wish to investigate the issues and advised her to turn a blind eye to them. Celia was determined to pursue the matter, being sure that his activity’s had lead to deaths.

She came across the website after befriending a young, depressed woman online who said she had entered into a suicide pact with the screen name used by Melchert-Dinkel. After jumping onto the website Celia Blaye found at least half a dozen people who had similar pacts with Melchert-Dinkel and obtained his name and email address after organising a sting where one of her friends posed as a depressed person, and waited to be approached by Melchert-Dinkel. Although she wasn’t able to save many of Melchert-Dinkel’s victims, it is possible his activities may never have come to light had it not been for this lady’s determination and effort.

The Judge rejected the defendant’s argument that the equivalent California anti-suicide statute referred to the necessary presence of physical elements in connection with the aiding and abetting of a principal to take their own life through “furnishing the means for bringing about death – the gun, the knife, the poison, or providing the water” provided for in Ryan N., 92 Cal. App. 4th 1359, 1374 (Cal. 1st Dist. Div. 3 Ct. App. 2002).

The Judge reviewed the Minnesota Statute 609.05 which states “a person is criminally liable for a crime committed by another if the person intentionally aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires with or otherwise procures the other to commit a crime. The State met it’s burden by showing that “both the assisted suicide and aiding and abetting statutes require an element of intent that the respective suicide or crime takes place and an intentional act on behalf of the defendant in furtherance of that goal.

Therefore as long as the intent elements are present and made out, acts engaged in to encourage, assist or aid someone to commit suicide can be achieved through speech. People not present in the same room or even country or not involved in the issuing of guns or pills can therefore be liable.

In the course of judgement the Judge made reference to several cases in addition to the cases dealing with the need for a physical presence, including cases on accomplice liability. The Judge made reference, as stated above, to the case of State v. Williams, 759 N.W.2d 110, 114 (Minn. 2009) in which a Minnesota Court held that the State satisfies the burden that the accused is guilty in aiding and abetting another person to commit suicide if the speech “encouraged the principal to take a course of action which he might not otherwise have taken…..which includes a defendant who takes no steps to thwart its completion.”

The Williams case concerned the legal principles governing accomplice liability, the facts being in relation to a charge of arson. The defendant in Williams appealed the case on the grounds that the judge incorrectly instructed the jury and in doing so misstated the law and that the appropriate instruction on accomplice liability was as follows:

The defendant is guilty of a crime committed by another person when the defendant has intentionally aided the other person in committing it, or has intentionally advised, hired, counseled, conspired with, or otherwise procured the other person to commit it…….The state had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that [the defendant] knew that his alleged accomplices were going to commit a crime and that [the defendant] intended his presence or actions to further the commission of that crime.”

The Court decided that the correct law was as stated in State v. Gates, 615 N.W.2d 331, 337 11 (Minn. 2000), namely that the defendant must have “played a knowing role in the commission of the crime.”

The Williams Court concluded that the verdict should therefore be vacated as the correct law was as stated both Gates (supra) and in State v. Mahkuk, 736 N.W.2d 675, 682 (Minn. 2007) as follows:

When the state proceeds on an aiding-and-abetting theory, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew his accomplice was going to commit a crime and intended his presence or actions to further the commission of the crime.

In the Williams case there was only a circumstantial connection between the defendant and the arson, and the jury may have concluded wrongly that the defendant was directly responsible for the arson. Alternative theories could only lead to speculation in the absence of proper instruction on accomplice liability.

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