It takes a special kind of depravity to stand over someone who is barely hanging onto life, literally or metaphorically, and nudge them over the edge. Yet there are a growing number of cases of people who’ve done that, or who are accused of doing that, by encouraging, urging and even goading someone else into suicide.
Take Michelle Carter of Plainville. She was a senior at King Phillip High School in 2014 when her friend, Conrad Roy III, shared with her thoughts about taking his life. Carter helped him research information about carbon monoxide poisoning, according to prosecutors, and coached him through the act. When he dawdled, she pressured him about why he hadn’t followed through. When he reached out to her as it was happening, she told him to “get back in the truck.” It was the kind of encouragement friends give each other for losing weight or kicking a bad habit. Except, she was leading him to his death.
Then, last May, Alexander Urtula was set to graduate from Boston College the day he leaped from the top of a parking garage near Northeastern University to his death. Prosecutors say his girlfriend, Inyoung You, was abusive and demeaning right up until the end. Suffolk District Attorney Rachel Rollins said You was not just aware of Urtula’s mental state, she told him — repeatedly — to kill himself.
As the law now stands, such unfeeling, reckless behavior can lead to a charge of manslaughter — of which Carter was convicted and You is now charged. But it’s not a perfect fit. For one thing, suicide fundamentally involves the action of an individual intent on hurting themselves. Besides, at some level, the First Amendment protects speech — even abhorrent speech.
Thus the reasoning behind “Conrad’s Law,” or state S. 2382, presented by Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover. It targets someone who “intentionally coerces or encourages” another to commit suicide. The accused would have to be aware of the other person’s “propensity for suicidal ideation,” though it does not apply to treatment given by physicians. If convicted, someone could face five years in prison — far longer than the 15 month sentence given to Carter.
Daniel Medweed, a Northeastern law professor who helped write the bill, has said the crime of manslaughter is “an ill fitting suit draped over these types of cases in Massachusetts.” He says the state needs a “targeted, limited statute covering coerced suicide.” This law also would bring Massachusetts in line with at least 40 other states with similar codes.
But there are pragmatic reasons for it too. In fact, you may be carrying that reason in your pocket or purse.
The inter-connectivity of teenagers by wireless device — the near near-constant chatter via text and social media — lends itself to a strange new kind of communication. Messages are wrapped in impersonal packets, often delivered without seeing the other person. That more easily removes humanity, empathy and consequence. Combine that with the isolated feelings of some teenagers, among whom suicide rates are growing, and the result is a scary mixture.
Just ask Finegold, a father of teenagers. “I see on a daily basis how influential young people can be on each other’s mental health,” he told the Boston Globe. “This is especially true now that our children are moving through life with their cellphones basically attached to their bodies.”
This bill, which he filed with Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, certainly doesn’t change the dynamics of life as a teenager in a wired world. But it does raise awareness of everyone’s role — our shared responsibility — to look out for each other. Encountering a friend thinking of suicide demands pretty much the opposite kind of behavior as Carter was convicted of, and with which You is now accused.
The Judiciary Committee recently heard the suicide prevention bill. The entire House and Senate should take it up and approve quickly. Regrettably, these aren’t likely to be the last such cases. And instead of a push, people out there who are suffering, as Roy and Urtula did, need someone who will stop and help catch them.
Those thinking of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255), or the Samaritans hotline at (877) 870-HOPE (4673).