“Lethal Advocacy”: Not Ethical, and Not Protected Speech, Either

"Go ahead! Jump! You know you want to!"

William Melchert-Dinkel, aged 48, posed as a female nurse in internet chat rooms and preyed on depressed people by talking them into killing themselves.  A misguided mission? A perverted hobby? A salesmanship challenge? Who knows. But occasionally, he was successful.

Melchert-Dinkel was charged with assisting suicides after he encouraged IT technician Mark Drybrough, of Hillfields, Minnesota, to kill himself. Drybrough, who was recovering from a nervous breakdown, received e-mails from Melchert-Dinkel, found on his computer, containing detailed advice on how Drybrough could hang himself. He used that advice to commit suicide in 2005. Melchert-Dinkel also provided encouragement and guidance to Canadian Nadia Kajouji,  18, who drowned herself by leaping into an icy river in 2008.

Prosecutors said Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with suicide and sought out potential victims on the internet with the intention of persuading them to take their own lives. He provided them with step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves, participated in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people,  and entered into fake suicide pacts with at least ten of them.

Judge Thomas Neuville found him guilty of two counts of assisting in a suicide. Defense lawyers will appeal, arguing that his communications in the chat room and with his e-mails were protected free speech. It is hard to argue, however, with the written decision in the case (it also contains several of the e-mails) holding that persuading someone to kill himself meets the Supreme Court standard of unprotected speech by virtue of its intent and its actual effect of causing harm to another. Neuville also states that society has a legitimate interest in protecting citizens from being pushed to suicide, outweighing any First Amendment considerations. The vivid term used in the opinion is “lethal advocacy.”

Neuville also correctly countered the defense’s contention that there was no crime because the victims were pre-disposed to suicide. He wrote,

“These arguments are irrelevant because predisposition of the person who commits suicide is not a defense [to the statute]. The predisposition of a suicide victim actually makes the victim more vulnerable to encouragement or advice, and their death more imminent and foreseeable… the facts indicate repeated and relentless encouragement by Defendant to complete the suicide.”

Does that mean that when a crowd watching a man on a ledge starts chanting “Jump! Jump!”,  and he does jump, the crowd’s conduct is criminal as well as bloodthirsty and unethical?


Good rule.

14 thoughts on ““Lethal Advocacy”: Not Ethical, and Not Protected Speech, Either

  1. What if you called out to someone on a window, “Don’t jump! You have so much to live for, like your crushing credit card debt, unrewarding menial job you swore you’d quit ten years ago, and your wretched and hideous spouse!”

  2. Trying to imagine the depths of hatred that Melchert-Dinkel must have for everybody in the world, including himself. Finding it hard to imagine. I’m not sure what the legal definition of insanity is in his state, but for the protection of the public he should be locked securely in a prison or insane asylum, with no access to computer or telephone.

    If he is “sane”, he has to be one of the most evil, depraved people in the country.

        • Yes, but the people whom Kevorkian helped were terminally ill and probably not going to a chat room for suicidal people looking for help in dismissing their suicidal ideation.

          • Actually, almost none of them were terminally ill…that was the point. Some were just depressed; others had chronic pain. What turned most people around on Dr. Death was that he got into the biz because of his interest in accelerated organ harvesting.

            • Chronic pain, I can understand… depression… that sounds strange to help people kill themselves for that. I thought they’d be able to figure that much out for themselves.

              • Jeff: “Chronic pain, I can understand…”

                I’ve lived with chronic pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis (“the Great Crippler”) for years, and I have a wonderful life.

                Attitude is everything.


  3. Jack,
    Ignoring Melchert-Dinkel’s case for a second, how is it criminal to yell “jump” at a person standing on a ledge? Unethical, perhaps, but arguing it’s criminal would seem to suggest I, personally, had a hand in the jumper’s death (which I wouldn’t have). Telling someone to commit suicide while providing them with detailed instructions and a bottle of pills is one thing, but yelling encouragement at some suicidal asshole on a street corner (who made it to the ledge with no help whatsoever) is quite another.

    As I’ve asked before .. when do we start blaming the victim?


    • Uncharacteristically careless, Neil—I didn’t write “illegal,” for a reason, because no current law would cover it enough for a successful prosecution. “Criminal” means, among other things, “relating to or having the nature of a crime.” It fits the description of “lethal advocacy” to a T, and a mob chanting at an emotionally ill potential suicide to jump. I would have no problem at all if there were criminal statues against it.

      “Unethical perhaps”? Seriously? You can’t possibly mean that.

      Talking a specific individual who is depressed or otherwise unduly subject to influence into killing himself IS a crime in almost every jurisdiction, and should be. You will recall that Charles Manson was found to have been guilty of manipulating his cult into killing others. Would you say Jim Jones was not responsible for the suicides at Jonestown?

      Whenever it is we start blaming the victim, it’s not when the victim is depressed, schizophrenic, emotionally oil, or suffering from alcoholism. Those conditions are all genuine and dangerous illnesses, and suicide is a too-common symptom….they are vulnerable. My personal experience with suicide includes three cousins (depression, schizophrenia, and manic depression respectively) and one college room mate (schizophrenia). Any of the four, who I knew well, could have been pushed into earlier deaths—and one of them may have been taunted into suicide by a mob—we could never prove it. But a crowd was around him when he jumped off an overpass into an oncoming truck, crashing through the truck’s window.

  4. Jack,
    If I were standing on a ledge and all it took were you screaming “jump” from below to finally push me over, the fault is still ENTIRELY with me. You didn’t ruin my life, you didn’t drag me to the edge, it was all mea culpa. I can’t speak the cases you mentioned, nor would I, as I don’t know anywhere near enough. My point is, vulnerable and emotionally crippled or not, we can’t start holding other’s accountable for what people do to themselves. Regardless what was said to them, a person contemplating suicide is the the ultimate decider in the choice over what to do and I think it’s wrong to blame others for it. I’m sorry, but suicide is where I draw a line.

    I’m familiar with the difference between criminal and illegal, which is why I was careful not to use the latter in my post. However, as I correctly surmised, you were suggesting that such actions SHOULD be illegal, which is what I took issue with.


    • Odd place to draw “the line”—sick and vulnerable people. If all it takes is encouragement for someone to jump, it means that discouragement would have stopped him. It’s simple causation. You’re just all wet on this one. Couldn’t be wetter. Drenched. Drowned.

      I didn’t say that I advocated such a law, I said that it’s criminal. And if there were such a law, I wouldn’t be upset about it. I also think it’s criminal when someone takes advantage of a woman’s affection and trust by pretending he’s in love and wants to get married and have children, and dumps the woman for a younger tart. I don’t advocate a law against that either. Ethics should be enough to keep people from doing both, and most of the time, it does.

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