Should Encouraging Suicide Be Made A Statutory Crime?

Readers of this blog know that I’ve written previously on the subject of whether coercing someone to commit suicide should formally be made a statutory crime in Massachusetts.  When they first learn about this issue, a lot of people are stunned to learn that in Massachusetts, it’s not, formally speaking a “law on the books”.  Well, it isn’t:  Massachusetts remains only one of only eight states that does not have a statutory law that explicitly criminalizes the coercion of suicide.

As the nationally-reported ‘homicide by texting’ case of the Michelle Carter prosecution here in Massachusetts made clear, involving the suicide of Conrad Roy III in 2014, prosecutors had to charge her with the crime of involuntary manslaughter involving that case, which is what drew so much media attention to it:  The legal elements required for a conviction of involuntary manslaughter can make not only bringing but securing a conviction on these cases, legally difficult.  In Massachusetts, for prosecutors to secure a conviction of involuntary manslaughter requires a finding that the defendant engaged in “wanton and reckless conduct” which directly caused the victim’s death, and that is how, essentially, Michelle Carter was convicted:  Through her acts of repeatedly encouraging her boyfriend Conrad Roy, who had repeatedly demonstrated depressive symptoms, to kill himself.  Carter was Roy’s girlfriend and was 17-years-old at the time Roy killed himself.

The problem with this prosecutorial approach is that the defense usually rests upon a First Amendment claim of freedom of speech.  This defense essentially claims that this type of speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that words alone, without action, cannot legally cause another person to commit suicide.  Michelle Carter’s defense was that she didn’t cause Conrad Roy’s death – that he killed himself.  As a Boston criminal defense lawyer, I don’t subscribe to this legal argument, at all.  In fact, several of my legal colleagues disagree with me, but I stand by my position:  If one person, knowing that another person possess or displays particular mental or emotional vulnerabilities such as depression, mental or emotional illness or suicidal thoughts, takes advantage of that person’s vulnerabilities and encourages the victim to commit suicide, such speech should not be considered protected, but should be statutorily codified as a crime.

In support of my position, I’ve asked several of my legal colleagues who disagree with me, and who feel that words alone cannot cause another’s death, to consider the following hypothetical:  Before doing so, it’s central to realize as a predicate that in all such criminal charges involving a suicide, the victim was nearly always observably vulnerable on an emotional level:  Depressed, mentally and emotionally weak, or psychologically troubled.  It is that vulnerability on the part of the victim, and the defendant’s awareness of it,  that forms the core of the criminal charges against the defendant.  Now consider the following hypothetical involving words alone directed at someone who is physically vulnerable (not mentally), and which directly results in that vulnerable person’s death:  Assume that “A”, a healthy person, is walking along the edge of a narrow cliff.  “A” sees “B”, a visibly blind person, walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff, which has a 500 foot sharp drop to rocks below the cliff edge.  “B” asks “A” which way he should turn, in order to walk back to a designated path.  “A” knows that to get back to the safe walkway, “B” needs to turn sharply left.  Instead, “A”, knowing that “B” is in a vulnerable state or condition, tells “B” to keep walking straight – knowing that “B” is almost certain to plunge to his death if “B” follows “A”s direction.  “B” follows “A”’s advice, and plunges to his death.

Having been aware of “B”s vulnerability, should “A” be able to claim a First Amendment privilege of free speech, and argue that his speech alone did not cause “B”’s death?  Not in my professional view as a criminal defense attorney.  Consciousness of the victim’s vulnerability is key here – and it is that awareness of the suicide victim’s mental and emotional vulnerability that should form the core of statutes that formally codify coercion of suicide to be a crime.  This debate has taken on added force, with another Massachusetts case charging yet another defendant with causing the death of a mentally vulnerable person who committed suicide after being repeatedly encourage to do so by the defendant.   That ‘manslaughter by text’ case involves the suicide death of Alexander Urtula, an emotionally depressed Boston College student who committed suicide last May after allegedly being repeatedly urged to do so “hundreds of times” via text by his then-girlfriend, Inyoung You, 21.  Prosecutors have alleged that between only March 29 and May 20, You sent the victim 47,130 texts, with “hundreds” of those texts encouraging the reportedly mentally vulnerable Urtula to kill himself.

I’ll discuss in Part Two of this post, what’s being done about this in Massachusetts.