Sunday, May 16, 2010

Suicide and the Internet

On April 23, G. Paul Beaumaster, Prosecuting Attorney in Rice County Minnesota, filed a complaint against William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, for violation of a Minnesota law that states "Whoever intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other's own life may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 15 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $30,000, or both."

The complaint details a horrifying story. Melchert-Dinkel, a 47 year old husband, father, and licensed practical nurse, was obsessed with death and suicide. He trolled websites about depression and suicide, and contacted people who were considering suicide, using pseudonyms like "Cami" and Li Dao." He offered information on the best way to kill oneself, and encouraged people to do the act. In the guise of a sympathetic female nurse, "Cami" suggested that the potential suicide would be happier in heaven.

In 2008 "Cami" entered a suicide pact with Nadia Kajouji, an 18 year old student in Canada. Nadia would kill herself by jumping off a bridge. "Cami" would hang herself the next day. Nadia jumped, and died. "Cami" didn't. When the police confronted Melchert-Dinkel he confessed to having encouraged Nadia and scores of others to kill themselves.

I support the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, under which people with terminal illness can obtain prescriptions for lethal overdose, under carefully controlled circumstances. But Melchert-Dinkel's actions have nothing in common with the thoughtful, though still controversial, program in Oregon. Melchert-Dinkel, by his own testimony, was motivated by a perverse fascination with death. He exploited suicidal people the way rapists exploit their victims.

If Melchert-Dinkel wrote essays praising suicide, he would be misguided but within his right to free speech. But encouraging suicidal people to kill themselves is like shouting "fire" in a theater. It's an incitement to action, not a free expression of opinion. I'll be surprised if he does not spend time in prison. He deserves punishment.

I tried to visit suicide chat rooms to see what kinds of interactions occur. But my access via my employment site is blocked for sites labelled "violent." The web has been a godsend for many people with serious ailments, who "meet" others with the same conditions and swap advice and support. Unfortunately, sites like those Melchert-Dinkel preyed on bring together vulnerable people, many of whom suffer from psychiatric illnesses. In U.S. society adults have a "right" to consort with whomever they choose. But the Melchert-Dinkels of the world don't have a right to exploit their penchant for death.

(The complaint against Melchert-Dinkel makes fascinating (though grisly) reading. It's available here.)


Anonymous said...

I think you are absolutely right. Free speech is not a defence in this guy's case. He had a plan to take advantage of people who he knew were in a vulnerable state. He did so again and again, and he did so as a form of entertainment. He is on record as having said that he enjoyed "the thrill of the chase".

With regard to free speech, as you say, there is a difference between publishing some wierd theoretical essay praising death/suicide etc. and what Melchart-Dinkel has done, which is to take it to a personal level. He used communication to target specific individual people who he knew could be harmed by the ideas which he expressed. In truth, what Melchart Dinkel has done is really more a case of murder. Since he had such a sophisticated plan, I think he should be charged with outright First Degree Murder. That is what he has done. There are many weapons that could be employed in a murder. It seems that one of them is words. If you use words with a person who is mentally ill, a child or a mentally challenged person, it is possible to kill a vulnerable person through trickery.

I think that this case is extremely important. If Melchart-Dinkel is found not guilty, it would send a message to internet preditors that they can victimize vulnerable people over the internet.

I invite anyone to please view this documentary which was prepared by CBC. It shows how Melcahrt-Dinkel operated and tells the story from the vantage point of Nadia Kajouji. You will see that Nadia went to Carleton Univ a happy and confident woman, but that many unfortunate events took place during her first weeks at school. What happened to her could have happened to any of us. The same is true of Mark Drybroough, another of the victims of this preditor. He became clinically depressed after a medical condition that afflicted his glands.

Jim Sabin said...

Dear Anonymous -

Thank you for your comment and for the link to the Canadian Broadcasting Company program. I wasn't aware of it and wouldn't have seen it otherwise. During my psychiatric practice I worked with many people experiencing suicidality, and I know how hard one has to work to push against the impulse. The CBC program shows how hard Melchart-Dinkel was pushing in the opposite direction.

From the perspective of ethics your suggestion that he be charged with murder makes sense. Melchart-Dinkel acted to promote the death of what could reasonably called his "victims." He was instrumental in their deaths. But I doubt that he could be convicted of murder under the law, since the people he preyed upon were actively contemplating suicide. I imagine that his defense would be that although he acted in a reprehensible manner, there was no proof that the death would not have occurred without his intervention.

Minnesota law allows for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for aiding in suicide. If Melchart-Dinkel is convicted, I would expect the maximum sentence to be imposed, and to me that seems correct from the perspective of ethics as well as law.

I encourage readers to follow the link you provided!