“Did Advise and Encourage” Suicide (by Law Professor Susan Brenner)

On Wednesday’s PI Window segment (Cybercrime, Insanity Pleas and the Right to Die: A Guest Panel Discussion), we welcomed to the show NCR Distinguished Professor of Law and Technology Susan Brenner and, TV’s Cop Doc Dr. Richard Weinblatt to discuss the fast approaching William Melchert-Dinkel trial in which The Serial Suicide Killer is facing conviction for encouraging two people to commit suicide over the Internet.

The underlying question . . . should Melchert-Dinkel be convicted?

Based on our panel discussion, which was both spirited and at times contentious, Professor Brenner posted to her blog CYB3RCRIM3, a detailed review of the case titled ““Did Advise and Encourage” Suicide.”

Included in the following excerpt from her blog post, Professor Brenner introduces the Model Penal Code, in which she noted that “causing someone to kill themselves would be a “pretty clever way” to commit murder, but also concluded that we can’t simply make it a crime to “cause” someone to kill themselves.”

Be sure to visit Susan’s blog to read the post in its entirety, as well as tune in to the On-Demand version of Wednesday’s broadcast to hear the discussion which led to her post.

Excerpt from “Did Advise and Encourage” Suicide

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ongoing prosecution of William Francis Melchert-Dinkel for allegedly advising and encouraging suicide in violation of Minnesota law. I must admit, I wasn’t until relatively recently.

If you’d like a brief overview of the case, check out this Wikipedia entry of Melchert-Dinkel. You can also find the criminal complaint filed against him here.

Melchert-Dinkel is charged with violating Minnesota Statute § 609.215(1), which provides, in relevant part, as follows:

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.

(A subdivision I didn’t include says it is not considered aiding suicide for a health care provider to administer medication to relieve someone’s pain or discomfort, “even if the medication . . . may hasten or increase the risk of death.” Minnesota Statutes § 609.215(3). Since Melchert-Dinkel doesn’t seem to be a health care provider, that provision presumably isn’t implicated in the prosecution against him.)

What I find particularly interesting about the prosecution against Melchert-Dinkel is the identity and citizenship of his alleged victims. Count 1 of the criminal complaint charges him with violating § 609.215 by advising and encouraging “Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, UK, using Internet correspondence, and Mark Drybrough did take his own life.” Count 2 charged him with violating § 609.215 by advising and encouraging “Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, using Internet correspondence, and Nadia Kajouji did take her own life.”

According to Wikipedia, Melchert-Dinkel

admitted using two e-mail addresses, falcongirl507@yahoo.com and li_dao05@yahoo.com, and the alias Cami D, to advise, encourage and create suicide pacts, typically by hanging, with persons on the internet for four to five years.

I have no idea whether any of that is true. The truth or falsity of this information or of most of the allegations against Melchert-Dinkel aren’t relevant to the issues I want to address in this post. What I want to focus on are (i) holding someone liable for “advising” or “encouraging” someone to commit suicide and (ii) a U.S. state’s prosecuting someone for a crime when the victims were citizens of other countries and resided in those countries.

Let’s start with “advising” or “encouraging” suicide. In a post I did several years ago, I addressed the “encouraging” suicide issue. In that post, I said the only suicide-related crimes in the U.S. are causing someone to commit suicide and assisting suicide. In the post, I explained that the drafters of the Model Penal Code (an influential template of criminal law statutes) noted that causing someone to kill themselves would be a “pretty clever way” to commit murder, but also concluded that we can’t simply make it a crime to “cause” someone to kill themselves.

For one thing, It’s very difficult to determine when what A said or did to B “caused” B to commit suicide. We can’t, for example, hold A liable for causing B to commit suicide simply because A ended a relationship (badly) with B. Aside from anything else, the factual causation issues are too complex, given the current state of our understanding of the human psyche. As I noted in my earlier post on this issue, the drafters of the Model Penal Code decided, then, that someone can be convicted of homicide if they purposely cause another person to commit suicide by using “force, duress or deception” . . . the inclusion of purpose is intended to limit the potential scope of liability, as is the requirement that someone have used force, duress or deception. Model Penal Code § 210.5.

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