Two recent cases of “coerced” suicide in Massachusetts prompted legislators to file a bill that would criminalize intimidating behavior and strong-arm tactics that cause another to commit suicide.
In 2014, Michelle Carter encouraged her boyfriend Conrad Roy to take his own life. More recently, Inyoung You allegedly pressured Boston College student Alexander Urtula to kill himself.
In July 2019, state representative Natalie M. Higgins, (D-Worcester’s 4th district) and Senator Barry R. Finegold (D-Second Essex and Middlesex) filed the bill, known as Conrad’s Law, as the judicial committee was wrapping up its session.
“We want to make clear to the community at large that you can’t coerce someone into committing suicide,” Higgins said. “We’ve come a long way with addressing addiction. But there’s still no crack in the stigma around mental health. This bill opens the conversation. We hope to have a new generation that is not uncomfortable talking about mental health needs.”
The death of Urtula, the Boston College student, is adding to the sense of urgency to pass this bill. “This gap needs to be addressed,” said Higgins. “Manslaughter is not the right charge for this behavior. We need to criminalize this behavior, which rises above bullying and hurtful words.”
Higgins pointed out that when a loved one with a mental health crisis informs others of their struggles, they would expect to receive support and help.
“These two cases are completely opposite that. They were encouraged and helped with the means to commit suicide,” she said. “We need to help those with mental health who struggle find resources and connect them to people within the right systems.”
Although some groups have expressed concerns over violation of the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, Higgins reported that case law has already put the constitutionality of this law to the test. She pointed out that 42 other states already have similar legislation on their books.
Finegold also aims to reduce mental health stigma with this law.
“We are facing an epidemic of teen suicide in this country. While teen pregnancy rates are down and teen drunk driving rates are down, teen suicide has been skyrocketing for two decades. The Conrad Roy/Michelle Carter case showed us that Massachusetts is ill equipped to deal with cases of coerced suicide, and the most recent tragedy at Boston College emphasizes how badly Massachusetts needs to fill the clear gap in our laws,” he said.
“If passed, this bill would create a narrowly tailored law that fits the crime we have now seen in multiple cases involving our young people. That way, district attorneys wouldn’t have to overcharge with a crime that carries a 20-year maximum sentence, while at the same time sending a strong message to those who would coerce vulnerable people that it’s unacceptable behavior.”
MaryRose Mazzola, Senator Finegold’s chief of staff, reported that the Judicial Committee heard the bill on November 12. “The next step is they will delve deeper. The chair will poll the committee and either report favorably or call for more study,” she said.
“Representative Higgins and Senator Finegold are currently reaching out to colleagues and have more than 20 co-sponsors.”
By Phyllis Hanlon