Update (December 30, 2015): Minnesota Litigator strays from “news and commentary about Minnesota civil litigation” into nearby jurisdictions and, in this post update, we take short, dark detour into the criminal realm. William Francis Melchert-Dinkel’s conviction for assisting suicide has been upheld by a divided Court of Appeals this week but his conviction for attempting to assist a second suicide has been reversed due to insufficient evidence to support a finding of guilt on that charge. (See another string of related posts here.)
If you read the linked decision, I think you will find Mr. Melchert-Dinkel’s conduct to have been depraved and sickening. On the other hand, his “conduct” was also “speech.” And, as a country, we like to allow almost all speech, even if we find it sickening, depraved, and repugnant. The line-drawing can be quite subtle.
As you can see below, the Minnesota Supreme Court found the statute criminalizing “advising” someone to commit suicide or “encouraging” them to commit suicide to be unconstitutional. But, the Court held, the state can criminalize “assisting” people in killing themselves. And, in the linked opinion (see pp.10-12), we see that there is plenty of evidence that Nurse Melchert-Dinkel “enabled” Mark Drybrough’s suicide (as the Supreme Court defined “assisted “).
Nurse Melchert-Dinkel (yes, a licensed practical nurse) seems to me to have tried the best he could to enable the suicide of Nadia Kajouji. One wonders if he was disappointed when she chose drowning over hanging, the option Melchert-Dinkel was rooting for. Given the fine line between what can be constitutionally criminalized and what cannot be, I suppose the split decision is appropriate.
Update (March 19, 2013) (under the headline Drawing the Fine Line About Crossing The Line Between Protected Speech & Murder Once-Removed): Please feel free to ADVISE a person to kill herself or ENCOURAGE a person to kill himself. Our Constitution protects your right to engage in that appalling conduct. But do not ASSIST people in killing themselves. That would be wrong (and unlawful).
And “‘assist,'” according the the Minnesota Supreme Court majority, “by its plain meaning, involves enabling the person to commit suicide…[and] speech alone may also enable a person to commit suicide.”
Justice Alan Page dissented, pointing out the murkiness of the distinction between “advising” and “encouraging,” on the one hand (a constitutional right) and “assisting suicide by speech alone” (a crime unworthy of constitutional protection).
Update (December 21, 2013): The Minnesota Supreme Court has granted the State’s petition for review of State of Minnesota vs. Final Exit Network, Inc. et al., the case described in the original post, below.
Original post (October 1, 2013): Our state criminalizes assisting suicide. Maybe this is not very controversial because “assisting suicide” and “premeditated murder” are arguably overlapping concepts.
On the other hand, “advocating suicide” plainly begins to implicate the right to free speech in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Is there a difference between, on the one hand, someone generally advocating that the terminally ill should have the right to commit suicide (with or without assistance) and, on the other hand, someone seeking out mentally compromised people on the internet and badgering them, bullying them, and/or exhorting them to kill themselves? Can we protect the first form of speech and criminalize the second?
I would think so. On the other hand, I am not an expert in the First Amendment by any stretch.
The case of Mr. Melchert-Dinkel (previously covered here) is pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court. As it mulls over that case, the Minnesota Supreme Court might find it interesting to review an unpublished Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that came out this week against “Final Exit Network” and others.
The decision appears to strike down the Minnesota statute prohibiting “encouraging” or “advising” suicide as a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution but leaves the defendants in that case exposed to criminal liability for actually assisting in a suicide.