Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

A strange sentence for an “internet predator” guilty of encouraging suicide shows the justice system is uncertain about many aspects of online activity.

A former nurse from Minnesota, William Melchert-Dinkel (aged 48) was recently found guilty of aiding and encouraging the suicide of two individuals after meeting them in internet suicide chat forums. He entered into fake suicide pacts with the victims, because he was fascinated with, and motivated by hanging and death. He was sentenced this week for aiding the suicide of a male from Coventry who hanged himself (which Melchert-Dinkel had asked to be allowed to watch via a webcam), and a female in Canada who drowned herself after his encouragement. He was sentenced to 320 days in prison, as well as 40 extra days to be served in two day “stints” over the next ten years, on the anniversary of his victims’ deaths. He was also ordered to pay 18,000 dollars in fines, and a further 29,000 dollars in restitution. He will be on probation for 15 years with a suspended six-and-a-half year sentence and will also be banned from using the internet without approval. Melchert-Dinkel will appeal on the grounds that he was exercising his rights of free-speech on the internet.

He has admitted encouraging twenty or so people to commit suicide online, and entering into fake suicide pacts with ten other people, five of which he believed went on to kill themselves. That Melchert-Dinkel was a nurse who admitted being obsessed with hanging and death was worrying enough, having overtones of the UK’s Colin Norris, Beverly Allit and Harold Shipman. The presiding judge compared Melchert-Dinkel’s conduct with stalking, describing it as calculated, intentional and fraudulent, with even his own defence team describing his acts as “sick” and “abhorrent”. Melchert-Dinkel has not yet shown any remorse for his actions. It begs the question as to whether this could be a form of vicarious serial murder. The mother of the deceased man in the case, Mark Dryborough from Coventry, who was 32 at the time of his suicide, has accepted the sentence as being reasonable, and has shown considerable grace as well as empathy and understanding to Melchert-Dinkel in her words.

The act of helping an individual knowingly take their own life remains illegal in the UK as in most countries (whether through selfish or altruistic motivation), and despite this, over 120 UK citizens have never been prosecuted after making the final journey with loved ones to the Dignitas clinics in Switzerland. Proponents of a review of the laws on suicide in the UK that will hopefully end the confusion and uncertainty faced by relatives of the terminally ill, include Lord Carlisle, Lord Falconer and Baroness Finlay. Suicide is currently slowly on the rise in the UK, after consistently falling each year since 1991. Since 2007 an overall increasing trend has been occurring, with approximately 5,500 suicides occurring each year. Internet-based suicide support forums, and social networking media as a whole, clearly play a role in this. The Bridgend suicide “cluster” in Wales was closely related to the phenomenon of copycat suicides and social networking among young people, only stymied by a voluntary news blackout on the topic. Although many feel uneasy about news blackouts in principle, Norway has a scheme where news media reporting of suicides is prohibited, and this no doubt helps make it the only Scandinavian country to have an average suicide rate amongst its citizens, as opposed to a much higher rate found in Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

A case in Braintree, Essex in September 2010 involved a double-suicide. Stephen Lumb travelled from Yorkshire to meet Joanne Lee in Essex, after she posted adverts online asking for a “suicide partner”. They carried out their suicide pact in a car park by poisoning themselves – having only met online not long beforehand. The instantaneous and real-time nature of social networking allows a distressed person to meet another person online and, instead of finding help, support, or time to reflect on their distress, they end up being encouraged to do something they might not have done alone.

Until the law catches up with the role of how the internet is used in both the encouragement of suicide, and as an aid in facilitating early death in those with terminal diseases, suicide will no doubt continue to increase as people continue to operate around the remits of the law.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University