Suicide enablers could face penalties and even prison under a proposal inspired by the case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted more than three years ago of using text messages to goad her boyfriend into killing himself.
A bill filed by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, would set a maximum sentence of five years in prison for anyone who "intentionally coerces or encourages that person to commit or attempt to commit suicide" by using physical acts or mental coercion that manipulate "a person’s fears, affections or sympathies."
The proposal is named after 18-year-old Conrad Roy III, of Mattapoisett, who killed himself in 2014 after a battle with mental illnesses.
Finegold, a lawyer who filed a similar bill in the previous session, said Massachusetts is among a minority of states without a law making suicide by coercion a crime.
"Most other states already have made it illegal to encourage or provide the resources for someone else to commit suicide," he said. "The tragic death of Conrad Roy made it clear that Massachusetts is not equipped to deal with scenarios like this."
Finegold said the law would send "a clear message that coercing another person to commit suicide is not only unacceptable, but subject to criminal liability."
Carter, of Plainville, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in June 2017 following a bench trial that drew national headlines.
A Superior Court judge determined she caused Roy’s death when she told him to "get back in" his truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide in a parking lot in Fairhaven.
Carter's attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to take up the request.
The case highlighted what legal experts say are myriad difficulties in punishing those who encourage others to kill themselves.
Conrad Roy's mother, Lynn Roy, helped craft the bill named after her son. In a statement with the original proposal, she said she hopes it will "prevent future tragedies."
While Massachusetts has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, the number of suicide deaths has been increasing for more than a decade, according to the state Department of Public Health.
In 2018, there were 725 suicides in Massachusetts — more deaths than those attributed to car crashes and homicides combined, according to the department. That’s a 6.3% rise from the previous year and a 67% increase from 2004, when there were 433 suicide deaths in the state.
Recent studies suggest the pandemic has put even more strain on the mental health care system amid rising levels of anxiety and depression, particularly among young people.
Finegold said he has refiled another proposal that would require training teachers and students to detect warning signs of isolation, interpersonal violence and suicide.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.