Defense attorney Terry Watkins scored a huge victory on Wednesday, as the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction of his most notorious client: William Melchert-Dinkel, the former Faribault nurse who was convicted of advising and encouraging two people to kill themselves via online communications.
Melchert-Dinkel misrepresented his identity and entered into false suicide pacts with people (he's obviously still alive). When investigators tracked him down in Faribault, he initially tried to pin the blame on his two young daughters. But despite all that, Watkins says this of his client: "When I met Mr. Melchert-Dinkel it was very clear that at his core this was a very decent human being."
"This was a person with a family -- a wife and two kids," Watkins says. "This was a guy who had made a mistake for reasons that are very complicated, that don't have anything to do with the core character of his person."
But, Watkins adds, "We weren't arguing that his actions should be condoned or that they should be considered anything other than what they were -- unsavory, depraved perhaps -- so we were always segregating the reality of the action from what the First Amendment protects."
"Freedom means you have to allow things to happen that some would find disgusting and completely unacceptable from a community or moral standpoint," Watkins says. "But you have to accept it because there are greater implications."
Asked about whether he thinks the Supreme Court's ruling has implications that go beyond the Melchert-Dinkel case, Watkins says he hasn't spent too much time thinking about it.
"It might have ramifications in terms of the concept of suicide and maybe tangentially touch on internet speech, but for us it was always simply a matter of having my client acquitted," he says.
Watkins was confident all along the court would rule in his favor.
"From where I was standing the only common sense view of the law is prohibiting the assistance of suicide, prohibiting someone actually helping another commit the act," he says. "So I think the law has been pared down to what it should've always been."
Though Melchert-Dinkel's conviction was overturned thanks to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a statute criminalizing assisting or encouraging suicide, the ruling also remands the case back to district court. That means prosecutors could try to secure a conviction under the statute prohibiting assisting suicide. (Another option would be for prosecutors to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
But Watkins doesn't think the state would be able to convict Melchert-Dinkel of assisting suicide.
"This was an encouragement and advising activity," Watkins says. "I don't think the evidence would suggest that this was assistance."