The horrifying history of people who used the internet for murder

This week a man from Minnesota was convicted of aiding in the suicides of two people he met online while posing as a female nurse. He gave them advice on the most painless ways to die, and entered suicide pacts with them.

And it wasn't the first time he'd done this. William Melchert-Dinkel, once a nurse, was proven in court to be a frequent visitor on suicide websites, often approaching people and encouraging them to commit suicide in pacts with him - just for "the thrill." A judge sentenced him to over a year in prison for his role in the deaths of a British man in 2005, and a Canadian woman in 2008. Before their suicides, both had corresponded with Melchert-Dinkel and talked to him in chat rooms about their plans to die. In sentencing, the judge said he let Melchert-Dinkel off lightly because he was only "partly" responsible for his victims' deaths.

Melchert-Dinkel is one of a new breed of "partial" killers who could not have existed before the internet age.

There are plenty of homicides that involve the internet that could just as easily happened forty years ago, if you simply substitute a bar for a chat room, or a newspaper personal ads section for Craigslist. But there are also killers and deaths that happen today, mediated by the internet, that that the law is coming to recognize as something we've never seen before.

Consenting to die?

Often, the killers in these cases are given reduced sentences for their "partial" involvement, or are not convicted at all. In 1996, a North Carolina man named Robert Glass met a woman named Sharon Lopatka online. In a series of thousands of chat sessions and email exchanges, she told him she wanted to be killed after having kinky sex. After they decided exactly how this would happen, Lopatka visited Glass' house, and he obligingly had sex with her and then strangled her to death. A judge sentenced him to only two years in prison, in part for his role in Lopatka's death (he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder), and in part for having a lot of child pornography on his computer.

A few years later in 2001, German cannibalism enthusiast Armin Meiwes was given a similar manslaughter conviction for meeting another man in a chat room, and arranging to kill and eat him. Video the two took of their meeting - including sharing a meal of the victim's severed penis - made it clear that Meiwes' victim was willing. Later, prosecutors questioned whether his victim was capable of consenting to his own death, particularly given how drunk he was when the two met up. In 2006 Meiwes was retried for murder and convicted.

In a strange twist on these cases, a 14-year-old UK boy identified only as "John" arranged for his own attempted murder online by impersonating several different people, including a secret service agent. John met an older schoolmate named Mark in a chat room, and over a period of weeks pretended to be a host of different people whose goal was to persuade Mark that he needed to kill John to be accepted into the secret service and meet the queen. The Guardian reports:

Detective Chief Inspector Julian Ross, of Greater Manchester police, said: "The initial contact was made when the older boy went into an internet chatroom and talked to a person purporting to be a 16-year-old girl. That girl was in fact the younger boy."

"She" then introduced him to her stepbrother, who was John.

Mr Ross said: "The older boy thought he was talking to five or six different people when he was in fact talking to the younger boy all along."

The crucial character in the deception was a 42-year-old British secret agent called Janet. Mark was told by her that he must commit various tasks and that John was dying from a brain tumour.

Then on June 28 Janet told Mark that he had to kill the younger boy. If he carried out the job successfully, he was told, he would be accepted as a spy.

Mark was told to meet and kill John in a specially-designated location John had chosen. Mark stabbed John repeatedly, but wasn't able to kill him. John was convicted of inciting his own murder.

Convicting "partial" murderers

Convictions in these cases are often strange, and "partial" responsibility convictions are becoming more diffuse. Last year, a Chinese court declared the company Tencent 10% responsible for the deaths of people who formed suicide pacts via the company's popular social network QQ.

Others got off even more lightly for "partial" roles in people's suicides. Missouri woman Lori Drew created a fake MySpace account to befriend, and then reject, a thirteen-year-old girl named Megan Meier who went to school with her daughter. Drew posed as a boy named Josh, who flirted with the depressed Meier. After a week of pretending to be Meier's friend, "Josh" told Meier off and said the world would be better without her. Within hours, Meier committed suicide. Drew was convicted of misdemeanor charges of computer fraud, for creating the Josh account on MySpace. Prosecutors tried to get her on a conspiracy charge, since Drew's daughter and some of their friends knew about the prank, but the conviction didn't stick.

No one has been held responsible for the dozens of Japanse suicides that are the result of people forming pacts on suicide websites. Though law enforcement has discussed regulating suicide websites in Japan, it has yet to happen.

Contrast this with how similar internet suicide pacts have been handled in the United States. An Oregon man named Gerald Krein tried to organize a "suicide party" in a chat room on Valentines Day in 2005, but was unable to persuade his companions to commit the deed before he was arrested. A member of the "party" alerted police, and Krein was eventually convicted of solicitation to commit murder. Though he was not actually responsible for any deaths, Krein was sentenced to 20 years in a state mental hospital. In this case, the judge appears to have reasoned that Krein was responsible for "partial" deaths, and thus brought the full force of the law down.

Webcam suicides

Other people who are partially responsible for deaths online may never be identified or convicted. In 2008, a 19-year-old named Abraham Biggs overdosed while on Justin.tv, a service that allows people to videostream their lives. He was egged on by people he knew from chat forums on BodyBuilding.com, and nobody thought to call the police until 12 hours after he'd taken his fatal dose on camera. Were the people who egged Biggs on partly to blame for his death? Some judges might say yes, but the case has not gone to court.

An even more bizarre death of this sort occurred in 2003, when a teenager who went by the screen name "Ripper" overdosed while on a webcam in a chat room devoted to drugs. He died as people watched, and as his mother played board games down the hall from his room. Harper's Magazine later ran a transcript of Ripper's conversations in the chat room during the last few minutes of his life. What's interesting is that some people were trying desperately to get him some help, while others cheered him on. Except some of those encouraging him on weren't actual people, but chatbots who simply repeated the same phrases each time Ripper ate more drugs. "Ripper is a gangster!" one of the bots said enthusiastically, over and over, while the humans looked on in horror.

This is the kind of crime that it's hard to assign blame for, even partial blame. And yet if a judge could convict William Melchert-Dinkel for aiding in two suicides just by egging his victims on, are these chat room griefers not equally (partially) to blame for Ripper and Biggs' deaths? It's the kind of strange moral question we'll be having to answer more and more often in years to come.

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