In a case that will test the reach of suicide laws into Internet chat rooms, a former Minnesota nurse has been charged with aiding the 2008 suicide of Ottawa university student Nadia Kajouji.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 47, a married father of two, was charged by Minnesota state prosecutors Friday with aiding the suicides of Ms. Kajouji and Briton Mark Drybrough, two of "dozens" of suicide attempts he's alleged to have encouraged in online chat rooms where he posed as a woman.
He claims to have done it for the "thrill of the chase," and made a suicide pact with Ms. Kajouji, urging her to kill herself by jumping into a river, which she later did, court documents allege.
"It's been a long time coming, but we're happy to see that they were able to follow through and lay charges," said Candita Mills, Ms. Kajouji's aunt.
The charges, however, may prove unfruitful in a case plagued by legal headaches. The case is complicated by jurisdiction, its online nature, and the fact that the Minnesota law against aiding in a suicide (which applies to anyone who "advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other's own life") is also viewed as untested, and vulnerable to a challenge under U.S. First Amendment free-speech laws.
"This case raises some fundamental questions about the scope of criminal law. What he was doing in these cases is the equivalent of screaming to people on a balcony to 'jump,' " said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The first person to raise flags in the case was Celia Blay, a British woman who traced a number of suicide chat room profiles to Mr. Melchert-Dinkel.
"That was the easy bit. To get anyone to listen to me was the difficult bit," Ms. Blay, 65, said Friday.
In 2008, she got the ear of Sergeant Bill Haider in Minnesota. Mr. Melchert-Dinkel later told the officer he "estimated he most likely encouraged dozens of persons to commit suicide and characterized it as the thrill of the chase," Sgt. Haider wrote in papers filed Friday.
Mr. Melchert-Dinkel also told police he entered into 10 or 11 suicide pacts, that he knew assisting suicide was illegal, and stopped doing so in late 2008 for "moral, ethical and legal reasons," the document says. He told police he was "more of an advocate than a counsellor" in suicide chat rooms, and said his "interest in death and suicide could be considered an obsession," it says.
His most common online aliases were Li Dao, Falcongirl, and Cami, all young women. It was "Cami" that Ms. Kajouji spoke with before jumping into the frozen Rideau River in March, 2008. Her body was recovered weeks later.
She had been battling depression, and was placed on medication. Her parents complained that Carleton University officials did not notify them of Ms. Kajouji's problems. School officials say the 18-year-old's health records were private.
Mr. Melchert-Dinkel is not under arrest and is due to appear in court May 25. A message left at his home Fridayyesterday was not returned. He ordered an Associated Press reporter off his property Fridayyesterday, declining comment.
The maximum penalty for each charge is up to 15 years in prison and up to a $30,000 fine, or both.
Prospects of conviction, however, are debatable. The case appears to have no precedent, and its prospects depend on whether "the law itself will be able to stand the muster of a [constitutional]challenge to it," said Michele Goodwin, the Everett Fraser Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota.
However, University of Minnesota bioethicist Steven Miles, who has studied issues of assisted suicide, said the one-on-one nature of Mr. Melchert-Dinkel's alleged conversations with Ms. Kajouji may demonstrate an intent beyond simple free speech.
"I don't think this would be considered free speech," Dr. Miles said.
Ottawa police have never laid charges in the case, though their work is credited in the Minnesota court filing. It's illegal to counsel or aid suicide in Canada, though suicide itself is not illegal.
Mr. Melchert-Dinkel's alleged conduct is extraterritorial and therefore would likely not be covered by Canadian law, said Jocelyn Downie, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at Dalhousie Law School.
Canadian law also has no precedent for a case where a person is charged with encouraging another person online to kill themselves, she said.
In an emotional interview Friday, Mohamed Kajouji of Brampton, Ont., said he still blames both Carleton officials and whomever posed as "Cami" for his daughter's death.
However, he views the charges as good news, regardless of whether they lead to a conviction.
"It's a wake-up call for families. You never know who is online."