Skip

"Mr. Watkins said his client was basically a good person."
May 14, 2010 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Online Talk, Suicides and a Thorny Court Case A Minnesota nurse named William Mechert-Dinkel is charged with aiding in the suicides of a woman in Canada and a man in the UK. He assumed the name Li Do and trolled online for depressed people to encourage in (ultimately one way) suicide pacts. Caught in part by the efforts of a concerned retiree in the UK, his case brings up issues of not just jurisdiction but also of free speech. Somewhat related and previously.
posted by availablelight (38 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Suicide is and should be legal, and so unfortunately I think this is covered by the first amendment. If he was falsely encouraging them to harm other people it might be different. But regulating this particular area of speech would be very dangerous for artistic and personal expression.

Regardless, if this guy could be justifiably sent to a mental institution I think that would be in everyone's interests.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2010


His poor victims. :(
posted by zarq at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If he did it for the "thrill of the chase" (what a way to talk about people in pain), he's a predator, and should be treated as much.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wasn't there a Palahniuk character that did this? No so much the pact, but going on the suicide hotline and encouraging people to kill themselves?
posted by The otter lady at 8:12 AM on May 14, 2010


I was thinking of the first amendment myself until I read the charging document the NYT article links to. He wanted them to kill themselves--and he wanted to watch it on a webcam. In the case if the Brit who hanged himself, he got his wish.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 8:13 AM on May 14, 2010


This is about the clearest case of "bad facts make bad law" that you could possibly hope for.
posted by enn at 8:13 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wasn't there a Palahniuk character that did this?

Yeah, the protagonist of Survivor did this, although it is implied that his encouragement led individuals to confront themselves and reconsider suicide.
posted by griphus at 8:17 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I feel definite revulsion towards this particular individual....you can tell from the linked transcript excerpt that even though the teenager he's chatting with has plans to drown herself (which she ends up following up on), he's trying to manipulate her into hanging herself via webcam, in front of him, instead. That kind of behavior definitely falls into kneejerk, "there ought to be a law" thinking from me. But the possible implications for free speech are troubling.
posted by availablelight at 8:17 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are limits to free speech. Otherwise, Charles Manson would be an innocent man.
posted by rocket88 at 8:21 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree that suicide should theoretically be legal, but afaik suicide is illegal in the U.S. and Canada, but not the U.K. I doubt they'd nail him for conspiracy though given the jurisdictional issues, but who knows.

I'd imagine the court can sidestep all these free speech and jurisdictional issues by locking him away in a mental institution, well he is plainly dangerous, that usually suffices.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:24 AM on May 14, 2010


Any lawyers care to comment on the jurisdictional issues surrounding conspiracy charges?
posted by jeffburdges at 8:28 AM on May 14, 2010


Charles Manson incited criminal behavior. Suicide is not criminal.

Suicide (and thus also attempted suicide) was illegal under English Law, known as Felo de se, but ceased to be an offence with the passing of the Suicide Act 1961

Maliciously encouraging a suicide is still illegal under English law, but the accused was not in England.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:31 AM on May 14, 2010


The article, if not the acts themselves, are calculated to hit our collective "ick" buttons, but this is hardly different from a newly-elected leader howling, "Let's have a war! We can start in New Jersey!" and getting of bunch of young women and men killed. Think of our charming religious crusades.

In a sense, speech has been used to manipulate people into performing acts highly contrary to their own self-interest, up to and including death, probably since Throgg the clan leader shook his club and grunted, "For the horde!" I suppose the difference comes in that this is unwrapped of flag and stripped of spiritual glory.
posted by adipocere at 8:41 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


committing suicide is an act done often out of emotion... if we propose that encouraging someone to perform an act out of an emotional place is illegal, where on the continuum does every other form of baiting, encouragement to flameout, mocking, etc. fall?

Certainly these others aren't illegal either, nor do they have the same long term impact (death is, after all, long term, whereas you can always get another mefi account for a mere $5 if you push that disable button), but, aren't they part of the same species of the "how we treat each other" animal?

just food for thought.
posted by HuronBob at 8:44 AM on May 14, 2010


As far as I know, suicide is still illegal in the US. Mostly as legal justification for intervention by law enforcement in suspected intended suicides.

Surely there's a point at which encouraging someone to suicide becomes illegal. If you put the noose around someone's neck and helped them hang it, surely that would get you in trouble. There are laws against assisted suicide. This is very tricky legal stuff.
posted by threeturtles at 8:47 AM on May 14, 2010


This would be much harder to prosecute if the perpetrator were not a nurse. But because medical practitioners have certain legal responsibilities toward those in their care, it should be pretty much open-and-shut.
posted by miyabo at 8:50 AM on May 14, 2010


It seems suicide is legal in the US except as an unwritten common-law crime.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:51 AM on May 14, 2010


But because medical practitioners have certain legal responsibilities toward those in their care, it should be pretty much open-and-shut.

We're going to criminalize people's speech to random strangers based on their chosen profession?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:57 AM on May 14, 2010


this is hardly different from a newly-elected leader howling, "Let's have a war! We can start in New Jersey!" and getting of bunch of young women and men killed.

I think there's a difference between, say, the kind of speech where you shout into a bullhorn that New Jersey must be destroyed by any means necessary, versus lying to a mentally deranged person in order to get him to kill your New Jerseyan neighbor, including telling him where the key is hidden and how one goes about strangling a person.

There are borderline cases, but I don't think this Mechert-Dinkel is one, at least.
posted by fleacircus at 9:00 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is a huge difference between saying, "Sharon Tate should be killed," and saying, "Kill Sharon Tate." Having a reasonable expectation, (or knowing there is a possibility) of obedience plays a part in the nature of the second one too.

There is also a big difference between saying, "Suicide is painless" (I'm sure there are such sites on the web; I'm not going to look for them), and saying, "Kill yourself...Kill yourself...Kill yourself" to someone you know is susceptible. However, it isn't the same thing as tying the knot in the rope, is it?

I'm not sure that what Mechert-Dinkel did crosses the line into facilitation. I think it is probably something even more morally reprehensible. I can see tying a knot or providing a heroin overdose to someone who has firmly made up their mind as an act of misguided compassion. These acts, the false pacts, the webcam shows, are not any kind of compassion at all. They are encouragement of venerable people, like telling the paranoid down the street that it is your wife that talks to him within his head. That's not something covered by free speech at all.
posted by Some1 at 9:18 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is it reasonable to consider it incitement if the person had already made plans to commit the act before the alleged incitement occurred?
posted by Human Flesh at 9:29 AM on May 14, 2010


I know that there have been cases in the past where people have been prosecuted for driving a person to suicide (online bullying is the big new one for this), but I don't know how often those are actually successful. Would this case be more along those lines or does the issue of consent make the difference?
posted by charred husk at 9:29 AM on May 14, 2010


This is not a unique case, and it definitely underscores the scarier side of the Internet's very long reach and its wide-open nature. This sort of thing will force some difficult choices in the legislative realm. Societal pressures in general are generating horrific scenarios such as the school assaults in China. People in pain can do terrible things, and the increasing rate of social change can cause a lot of pain.

Greater minds than mine need to grapple with the ramifications. I can only feel sorrow at the loss of the victims, who were clearly suffering and in need of real help, and those impacted by their deaths.

Meanwhile, this guy is a ghoul, and apparently realizes it as he sought help for dealing with his addiction to suicide websites. He needs to be denied web access, permanently. How would this be done, I wonder? Will we someday need a license to post?
posted by kinnakeet at 9:32 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but this should be illegal, and there are tons of ways you could prosecute it.

I don't see this as fundamentally different from deliberately giving someone bad directions which result in a car accident. There are also good Samaritan laws in any places which require you to aid someone who's in distress - though it would be an interesting court battle.

Actually, I don't see it as much different from shouting "Fire" in a crowded theatre. You're trying to convince people to make bad decisions which will result in death. The fact that most suicide verdicts contain the words "of unsound mind" should give you a clue.

Regardless of whether this is illegal, it should be illegal. If someone did this to someone I cared about and got away with it, I'd feel morally responsible to act. I consider it morally comparable to guiding a blind person under the wheels of a truck.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:35 AM on May 14, 2010


There's a slippery slope embedded here that I can't accept and can't walk away from. Emotions are transient. Despair is an emotion. The elation or calm that can come with setting a suicide plan in motion is also transient. Not to sound all 14-year-old me, but he fed the darkness in these folks. In a teenager. These people were in depression forums and he was trolling for victims.
I think that if a person is suicidal and someone is encouraging that they act on suicidal thoughts, it's kind of like feeding sugar to a diabetic. I don't agree that suicide should be illegal, per se, but the slippery slope I see is a question of the mental competency someone has while in a severely altered mood to make such a permanent and impactful choice. It can feel beyond excruciating, yes, circumstances can be horrible, yes, and it indeed could stay like that or get worse for the rest of the person's life. But encouraging a permanent and many-lives-altering action because of a worst-case scenario feels wrong. Especially from someone who's still alive. To which I say: poseur.
posted by Sweetdefenestration at 9:36 AM on May 14, 2010


...in MANY places...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:37 AM on May 14, 2010


Why is it that the stuff I'm reading on Metafilter just screams of Law and Order, Ripped from Today's Headlines!

Of course L & O's been cancelled. I could see it on LOCI though...
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:39 AM on May 14, 2010


We're going to criminalize people's speech to random strangers based on their chosen profession?

Why not? If, say, an investment banker can eventually be charged for encouraging people to buy a complex financial product while withholding the fact that he's shorting it himself (a wholly hypothetical example, of course), I don't see why this should be any different. Or is money more important than health and life?

I see why some may hesitate to go after this kind of crime, that with the implications for free speech and assisted suicide, but prowling the Internet for vulnerable people and pushing them to kill themselves is neither free speech nor assisted suicide: it's murder, and a particularly cowardly and shabby form of murder too. The fact that the murderer is a healthcare professional aggravates it even further.
posted by Skeptic at 9:40 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


IMO, advising someone not to commit suicide would be the more natural, human reaction when faced with a person contemplating ending their life, for whatever reason. Between "Please don't" and "It's your choice" there's a huge moral gap. I trust I'd always be in favour of advising against death.
posted by drogien at 9:50 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reading this article again, I'm struck again by what an awful human being he is. Egging on an 18-year old to kill herself - the fake suicide pact - and all done at no risk to the perpetrator, sitting at home comfortably.

I hope terrible things happen to him - so terrible that the next person to contemplate this thinks, "I do not want to end up like him." Sorry to burst in with this, but damn, what an awful human.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:50 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Skeptic, I would also cf Mandated Reporter laws, though these folks didn't come to him/her as a nurse.
posted by Sweetdefenestration at 9:52 AM on May 14, 2010


I don't know, drogien, hearing "it's your choice" could be much more emotionally powerful. Rather than being told what to do -- either by someone else to live, or by inner thoughts to die -- a person can make the choice to live. When I come up with my own idea (perhaps with some gentle guidance), it feels more true and right on than when I just wholesale take on someone else's. One can assert choice in their lives by choosing to live -- to feel suicidal and have suicidal thoughts every day, and every day make that choice to live.
posted by Sweetdefenestration at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


you can tell from the linked transcript excerpt that even though the teenager he's chatting with has plans to drown herself (which she ends up following up on), he's trying to manipulate her into hanging herself via webcam, in front of him, instead.

That transcript is one of the most subtly horrible things I have ever read.

The fact that it is real, combined with the sheer, bland, sleaziness of his manipulation - the persistent, obsessive return to the idea of hanging - the probing for whatever it is that will turn her off one way of death and onto the one that would satisfy him -

I think what is so disturbing about it is the way that he seems to want to claim her death - a moment of incredible significance for her, a moment that she would only have arrived at out of terrible psychological pain - and reduce it to the trivial and banal satisfaction of a fetish.

It turns another person into a means rather than an end in a way that I have never encountered before.
posted by lucien_reeve at 10:24 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


The otter lady: Wasn't there a Palahniuk character that did this?

I don't have many strict moral rules, but I think if I ever started MCMikeNamara's Ten Commandments, one would be:

'If, when determining whether thou shalt do something, if something might trigger the question 'Wasn't there a Palahniuk character that did this?", thou shalt probably not do it."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:08 AM on May 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


Doesn't that constitute a verbal contract?
posted by Laen at 11:36 AM on May 14, 2010


An investment banker has a fiduciary duty to their clients. Jim Cramer also caused an incredible number of bad investments, but his job is entertainment, not giving sound financial advice. If this nurse used his credentials, yes that might be illegal, but not necessarily that severe.

Imagine we've got an individual named Jim that's extremely depressed but charismatic. Jim seeks out other depressed people online, talks with them about suicide, and they often kill themselves. Jim has not done anything illegal, but Jim should be hospitalized for being a danger, even if the danger is only to others.

In the nurse's case, the prosecution should be obliged to pursue the route that'll most effectively protect other people. I'd expect that means putting him away in an asylum, given the jurisdictional and free speech issues.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:12 PM on May 14, 2010


In fact, there was an episode of L&O:CI about a man who ran a website for people who were contemplating suicide. Here it is.

And here's one from SVU.
posted by sdn at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2010


What I said upthread about not typically emulating Palahniuk characters goes double for any non-cop character on SVU.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:02 AM on May 20, 2010


« Older fandabidozi   |   Obama‚Äôs besetting political... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post