MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A former Minnesota nurse accused of prowling Internet chat rooms for depressed people and encouraging two of them to kill themselves is maintaining his innocence, but giving up his right to a jury trial, according to court documents made public Friday.
William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, asked for permission to enter a type of plea that would allow him to keep his not guilty plea but would require him to accept the evidence and let a judge decide the outcome without hearing testimony.
“I believe that a jury trial is not necessary and not in my best interests,” Melchert-Dinkel said in a court affidavit.
If Judge Thomas Neuville finds Melchert-Dinkel guilty, Melchert-Dinkel can’t appeal the conviction, but has the right to appeal pretrial issues. Melchert-Dinkel has lost several pretrial motions, including an argument that the case should be dismissed because his actions were protected free speech. Neuville said the First Amendment doesn’t protect speech that directly encourages and imminently incites suicide.
“He’s putting his fate in the hands of the judge,” said Joseph Daly, a professor at Hamline University School of Law. “But if found guilty he’s going to have one more bite of the apple and be able to go to the appellate court.”
A hearing on Melchert-Dinkel’s request to enter a “Lothenbach plea” is set for Feb. 17.
Melchert-Dinkel’s attorney, Terry Watkins, and Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Friday.
Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, is charged with two counts of aiding suicide for allegedly advising and encouraging two people to take their own lives. Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, hanged himself in 2005, and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, drowned after jumping into a river in 2008.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and hanging and sought out potential victims on the Internet. When he found them, prosecutors say, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.
Prosecutors say he acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
He allegedly told police he did it for the “thrill of the chase.” Watkins has argued the victims were predisposed to committing suicide and his client didn’t sway them by making statements online.
Unlike some states, Minnesota does not allow defendants to enter conditional guilty pleas. Prior to 1980, if a defendant wanted to keep the right to appeal any pretrial issues, he or she had to plead not guilty and go through trial — even if the facts of the case were not in dispute. A 1980 Supreme Court ruling changed that.
Under the rules of the Lothenbach plea, prosecutors must agree that if the defense would have won their pretrial arguments, there would be no case, while defendants must agree they won’t contest the prosecutors’ evidence, Daly said.
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