Let’s Talk Law

There’s an interesting legal precedent case upcoming in Minnesota that I’ve been pondering.

For several years, a 47-year-old Minnesota man (a nurse, married with 2 kids) spent a lot of his time on the Internet in suicide chat rooms. Not because he was contemplating suicide, but because he liked to talk to women who were contemplating suicide.

He’d pose as a woman himself and advise and encourage the women to go ahead and kill themselves. He’d enter into a fake suicide pact with them, pretending that they were going to go through this momentous event together. He claims to have encouraged at least a dozen women through their suicides.

Why?

For the “thrill of the chase”. He says his “interest in death and suicide could be considered an obsession”

This guy came to the attention of authorities  in 2008 when he made a suicide pact with a University of Ottawa student and encouraged her to kill herself by jumping into the Ottawa River. Which she did.

The problem, as I understand it, is that this guy has not clearly broken any laws. They’ve charged him under some assisted suicide law which applies to “anyone who advises, encourages or assists another in taking the other’s own life.”

He’s not under arrest, however, and the odds of him being convicted or penalized for what he did are slim.

The problems involve the fact that his relationships with the people he encouraged were conducted entirely online and, in the case of the Ottawa student, there are also jurisdictional issues. George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, says what the man did was basically just “screaming to people on a balcony to jump”.

It’s morally reprehensible, but should it be illegal? Apparently the whole case is also vulnerable to challenge under the US First Amendment free-speech laws. Telling people to go kill themselves makes you a jerk, but not really a criminal.

At the same time, many people have been advocating for years to decriminalize assisted suicide. Much as we would not like to be in Jack Kevorkian’s  shoes, I think most of us would agree that his cause and is work is noble.

So, if we convict this crazy-assed freak from Minnesota, how will that impact the progress made by the right-to-die people?

Of course if I were a friend or family member of the people that were encouraged into suicide by Minnesota guy, I would want him punished, too.

However, the people in question were clearly troubled and seriously contemplating suicide or they wouldn’t have been in the suicide chat room to begin with. There were obviously a lot of other issues at play here – issues that were brewing for a long time before they ever encountered Minnesota guy.

He didn’t hold them captive or force them into anything. At any time they could have shut down their computers and walked away.

On the other hand, these were extremely vulnerable people reaching out to anyone who had some understanding of the dark, dark place in which they found themselves. And they thought they’d found some kinship – someone who knew; someone they could really talk to.

And Minnesota guy took advantage of that. Instead of helping them to find their way into a less dark place, like most other people would do, he advocated for hurling themselves over the edge.

Morally wrong? Absolutely.

Ethically wrong? Absolutely.

Legally wrong? Probably not.

The internet is presenting us with a whole bunch of interesting new problems we have no idea how to address. What should or can we do about people like Minnesota guy?

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33 responses to “Let’s Talk Law

  1. He’s a prick for doing what he did and saying what he said, but it’s not illegal for him to have said and done that stuff.

  2. The cold intellectual side of me originally thinks, “Just thinning the herd.” The organic earthy people-person side of me thinks, “What an asshole.” The debatey side of me thinks, “I don’t see how these suicidal people responding to some creep on the internet has ANYTHING to do with the right to die movement. Because they are totally unrelated.” What would be really cool would be to have all of the loved ones of the dead girl be able to throw rocks at that guy in a pit. I’m not sure what to call the side of me that thought of that.

  3. Dr. Monkey – They’re trying to find a way for it to be illegal.

    Geewits – The only reason the right-to-die thing got involved is because it’s the fact that assisted suicide is illegal is the only thing they could charge him with. His motivations in “assisting” this girl to kill herself are totally different than the right-to-die people’s would be; but the whole right-to-die question can get sticky. If someone is terminally ill, in pain and wants to end it, there seems no reason not to help them. What if an elderly person is in very good health, but has outlived his children, has no other family or friends, has spent his savings, feels he has nothing left to live for — should we help him die? There are all sorts of scenarios that aren’t very clear cut. Who gets to decide who has the right to die and who doesn’t?

  4. Well, I think you have to consider that perhaps psychological pain and suffering isn’t really any different than physical pain and suffering – if you’re the sufferer. And certainly to the people that have a terrible time with chronic, deep depression, there is no difference. So, perhaps what this guy was doing is not all that different from Dr. Kevorkian. Is counseling someone or discussing the option of suicide all that different from assisting someone in taking their own life just because in one case they are physically ill?

    Is the difference that he lied about who he was, his situation, and the whole pact thing? I mean, this guy definitely sounds like a real asshat. Because ‘the thrill of the chase’ is not humanitarian in the least but just callous when you’re talking about someone ending their life. At that point, he’s just being a sick jerk. At the very least you are complicit and that’s really too close to being an accessory to murder in my mind.

    Of course, that said, I am all for being able to take your own life, if that’s what you want to do whether it is because of physical or psychological distress.

  5. “George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, says what the man did was basically just “screaming to people on a balcony to jump”.”

    That’s not really accurate. He was convincing people in suicide chat rooms to go through with it. That’s more like yelling at people standing on the ledge of a building to jump.

    It’s important to consider intent. His intent was to guide people who may be a little ambivalent about suicide into doing it. For the “thrill of the hunt” That says a lot about intent right there. A right-to-death-er’s intent is (usually) to help ease the pain of someone who is suffering from a terminal illness or some other thing (severe chronic depression etc) for which there is no other relief than death. This is done out of COMPASSION for the person. Not to feel like you’ve manipulated them for your pleasure.

    Sure it may not technically be illegal, but that doesn’t make what he did OK.

  6. The banning of suicide is another area where the church intrudes in our life. We are told that only God can decide life and death and so the power of the state is set up to stop anyone from suicide, abortion, murder etc. Unless of course there s pressing national need for it in which case only the armed forces are allowed to do it for the state.
    In a world full to overflowing with too many people why anyone is against suicide assisted or otherwise is beyond me.
    It is rather ridiculous to assume we can’t help another off this planet because of the long standing delusion of a big guy up in the sky who controls all these things.
    I say the guy in Minnesota was doing us all a favour helping others to die even if he was doing it for selfish reasons. Isn’t that why all the wars are started.

  7. For each suicide, he should be forced to meet in an auditorium with the deceased’s family and friends, look them in the eye, and be forced to explain to them why he did what he did.

  8. @ Friar I agree! I feel like he was hiding behind the internet to stalk his prey. This might smack him in the face with reality.

  9. Assisted suicide and the work of a sociopath (which is basically what this guy sounds like) are NOT the same thing! Assisted suicide is sometimes the only humane option for some people who are in extreme physical pain. But it should only be done: A)With an actual doctor, B) with patients who are of a sound mind and C) who have little chance of recovering.

    What this asshole online did, however, was prey on those with severe depression for “fun”. He facilitated the deaths of those poor women and should be penalized.

    Depression can be treated or at least counseled and medicated. Millions of people suffer from this disease and proper help is out there!

  10. Kimberly – On the other hand, people might say that it’s our duty to help a person who is psychologically distressed because they are in no condition to make an informed choice.

    Tiana – Absolutely. The motivation should be taken into account. However, I don’t think Dr. Kevorkian necessarily operates out of compassion, but more out of a belief in the rightness of a person to make their own decisions about when they should end their lives. And like I said to Geewits, I don’t think that always has to be just because someone is terminally ill and in physical pain. There are a lot of other reasons people might want to end their lives between the extremes of terminal illness and a young, physically healthy girl who is suffering from stress and depression. Who makes the call on who is allowed to end it and who isn’t?

    Jazz – There are chat rooms for everything you can imagine and then some.

    Dave1949 – You have a point. I guess the question here is whether or not this woman really wanted to die or if she was just embroiled in a dark struggle which could have gone either way depending on who had been counselling her. Too bad the only person she could get to listen to her was Minnesota guy.

    Friar (and Tiana) – Ya, he’s a piece of work all right.. There’s a lot of guilt to go around though. The school, that knew about this woman’s severe depression; her friends who knew she was suicidal; the family who were totally oblivious for some reason. This Minnesota guy would not have been able to prey on a healthy young woman with a good support network who was being counselled properly.

    Pauline – As I said to Geewits, that’s very true. But they are using the assisted suicide laws here in an attempt to convict this guy. – that’s what I was getting at. If they use this argument in court to get this guy some punishment; how does that impact the right-to-die cause…because it will. And like I said to Geewits and Tiana, the question isn’t as black and white as you saying people in pain, with a terminal illness, with the assistance of a doctor are the only ones allowed to choose when they want to die. Why are you putting those restrictions around it? I could think of many other reasons a person might want to die, who might not be ill and who won’t get a doctor to help him. Doesn’t he have the right to choose, too? Also, there may be help for depression out there, but an awful lot of people – including the woman in question here – aren’t getting it.

  11. The situation is bad enough as it is for the families of those who have taken their lives. Adding to it an evil, depraved person who preyed on the weaknesses of others must has to be worse.

    While I’m not a lawyer, 1st Amendment rights of freedom of speech may apply to what he said, but he should still be held liable for the results. In effect, he coerced others to take their life. It should not matter that they were susceptible.

  12. There’s some nuance I don’t get here.

    Under American free speech laws, it’s still illegal to yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre. Yet it may (arguably) be legal for a probable sociopath to stalk, groom, and prey upon a significantly large number of very vulnerable people, such that they all end up dead?

    On the face of it, their deaths ain’t exactly coincidence – nor a mass exercise in free will. But I bet said sociopath’s lawyer comes up with a total doozy of a constitutional argument.

    (Oh, and a small correction – the student in question was at Carleton, rather than Ottawa U.)

  13. I’m under the impression (probably wrong) that most people who attempt to commit suicide are using it as a cry for help, not a cry for death.

    Suicide isn’t the same as someone who is terminally ill who wants to end their life.

    The guy is a jerk and personally I’d like to see him convicted.

  14. @XUP-I agree, it certainly is a complicated issue, and will impact the right to die issue, but they are two different things. In terms of the guy, perhaps charging him with criminal harrassment is a better charge. Because he basically bullied (albeit under a friendly ruse) these women into taking their lives for pleasure.

    As for euthanasia, there has to be some restrictions or else it could cause a flood of uncontrollable suffering for the loved ones of those who choose to end their lives. I think they have it right in Holland, where it is only carried out by medical professionals and restricted to those in serious pain who no chance of recovery. Anything that doesn’t meet these requirements is illegal.

    As for the women not getting help, hopefully cases like these will encourage some States to provide better resources and support for those with mood disorders. (Beyond the drug commercials like for Prozac) As mentioned, depression can be controlled and someone may feel like killing themselves one day, but those feelings can change.

  15. Mike – I think everyone would agree with that assessment of what “should” happen. The problem is that they can’t find an existing law that will convinct him.

    Coyote – In the earlier case of Megan Meier, they were only able finally to charge the woman (who set up a fake MySpace account in order to drive this girl to suicide), with violations of the MySpace account agreement. And she specifically set out to woo this 13-year-old girl while posing as a young boy and then cruelly dumping her. Missouri was unable to prosecute her successfully, but they did enacted a new law prohibiting usage of the internet to harass someone.and prohibit ing abusive “communication by any means…” It’s known as Megan’s Law now –officially. The best and worst thing about the internet is that people can say and post pretty much anything they want right now. Much as we’d like to see abusers like these people in Missouri and Minnesota punished for what they did; any new laws that result from this are going to affect all of us down the road.

    Glen – I don’t know what goes on in a suicide chat room, but it wouldn’t be my first choice of a place to go if I was just looking for someone to listen to my pain. She went to school counsellors to cry for help. I guess that didn’t work so she went online maybe to look for a way to end it. I don’t know.

    Pauline – See, once you or anyone else starts putting restrictions on the “right-to-die” then it’s no longer a unversal right or personal choice, but a choice made by a committee or by medical professionals. If the committee gets to decide then will they make those decisions for people who are unable to express a choice, but who should be euthanized? When my father was dying the medical team kept trying to bully my mum into removing him from life support. They went so far as to tell her he was just using up valuable hospital space.. So I’d like to see these wise medical professionals and ethics committees kept out of the process altogether. If we’re going to grant people the right to choose death then we have to grant that right unconditionally. Certainly we should do what we can to dissuade the person, get them help if they’re willing to go, but not put the final decision in someone else’s hands. (PS: This woman was in Ottawa — it’s not just some states that need to look at providing better resources and support for mental health issues)

  16. In some ways, committing suicide is damned selfish.

    It’s not about one person. Look at all collateral damange of the guilt and grief they leave behind, with all the friends and relatives who wonder if they could have done something to stop it. Dozens of lifes are permanently affected for the worse.

    One of my colleagues (a psychiatrist)once told me, that if someone is dead set on killing themself, they’re going to do it anyway. So dont’ feel guilty if you weren’t able to stop them.

  17. Xup, I love what you said to Friar (and Tiana), especially that last sentence:
    This Minnesota guy would not have been able to prey on a healthy young woman with a good support network who was being counselled properly.

    I was thinking the exact same thing.

  18. I see there being a clear distinction between encouraging someone to jump from a balcony and fostering a relationship with someone and then encouraging them to jump from a balcony.

    In the latter situation I think there could and should be a case made for tortious law which imposes obligations on everyone to act in consideration of the rights of others.

    The law of torts is mainly judge-made and changes to meet new technological (ie. internet)and social issues and concerns which fits this case.

    Since it is highly unlikely this individual will be punished under criminal law I believe he should be tried under tort law at a bare minuimum to provide some compensation to the families of the people he help killed.

    Now of course to have this all play out in court one would have to prove that he did in fact commit an intentional tort, and in this case I would suggest one apply the tort of negligence and take into consideration the standard of a ” reasonable person”. For my thinking if he cannot be tried under criminal law than consideration needs to be given to the otehr avenues.

    If it were my child that he fostered this relationship with and led down this path I would be sitting in a Minnesota prison right now awaiting a murder trial.

  19. This may be a stretch, but…

    If you are morbidly obese and have a problem with fast food, you’re kind of eating yourself to death, right?

    Committing suicide slowly, by eating until your health declines and you die from poor nutrition.

    So… when fast food companies create products that appeal to morbidly obese people, and advertise them over and over again with catchy commercials to encourage said people to eat badly…

    …they’re kind of doing the same thing that this guy did.

    Except they’re charging for the “assisted suicide service”!

    And it’s totally legal.

    See, I told you it’s a stretch.

    But in the parallel universe that is my brain, the companies that make this shit and sell it as food are just as guilty if not more so than the Minnesota guy, because they help hundreds if not thousands of people kill themselves with food every year.

  20. People who go into chat rooms to discuss suicide are more likely to be looking for someone to stop them and not looking for someone to aid them. The whole, yeah life sucks let’s do it together thing is really some serious psychotic shit. If he is fascinating with death would you want this asshole as your nurse?

    As far as thinning the herd, some of the most intelligent people in the herd suffered from severe depression and mental illness…Poe, Van Gough, Alexander Grahm Bell and of course A beautiful mind…John Forbes Nash Jr. all people that should never be encouraged to kill themselves…nor should anyone else be encouraged to kill themselves. It’s the one that claim to be stable….we should really worry about.

  21. Friar – It’s very selfish in almost every way. I’m always shocked when someone with children, a family who loves them kills themselves. Whatever strange place your mind is in at that point, is there no room at all for consideration of the lives of the ones you leave behind? Apparently not.

    Geewits – I think there were some real issues with the way the school and school counsellor handled things for sure. The parents seemed to know nothing about her depressive state – she was away from home.

    Salayna – Well, like I said to Coyote, it’s not the first case of its kind. Every legal decision sets a precidence and has long-term and wide-ranging ramifications.

    Brett – It’s a stretch, but I can see the parallels for sure.

    Cedar – I didn’t know people went to suicide chat rooms to be talked out of it. That’s interesting. And, of course, you’re absolutely right that nobody should be talking anybody into doing something like that. He’s an evil guy, but he will probably not be punished for it because we can never have enough laws to cover all the bat-shit crazy stuff people think up to do to each other.

  22. Laws are just rules that we humans make up so we can live in proximity to each other. Criminal laws have changed over the years, depending on what society thinks should be prohibited. (When I was in law school in the early 80s, impaired driving was not considered a serious offence. By the 90s, that had started to change.) If we think what this guy did was wrong enough that he and others should be prevented from doing it again, then we have to make a law about it.

    Similarly, when enough people think that marijuana should be legalized, that law will change.

  23. Perhaps people need to actually visit a suicide chat room before deciding what goes on there.

    People are always saying how selfish people that commit suicide are. Those that are suicidal know exactly that. That’s why when it happens and the family never gets a note it’s because the suicidal person feels that people think they are selfish(and whatever else) thus feels like the world would be better without them.

    The guy went into these rooms to basically intentionally help mentally vulnerable people harm themselves.

    I hope no suicidal person is reading this whole thread right now. It just reaffirms their feelings of hopelessness and having no one to really talk to.

    Oh and my opinion is-I don’t mind if a person takes their life as it’s THEIR life to take. It’s a personal choice. The people,family,friends, whoever(that whole lot that wasn’t there for them when they really needed help such that they had to seek comfort from strangers and instead got encouragement to act.) that remain are selfish because they want the person in their life and can’t have their way.

    You can’t have it both ways: if you think suicidal people are selfish and messed up and they kill themselves then live with what you’ve branded them with.

    Saying they are selfish because YOU feel abandoned? Oh well. Welcome to their worlds.

  24. Lili;

    Nice guilt trip. But I’m not buying it.

    I’m not saying potential suicides dont’ deserve our sympathy and support.

    Of course they do. These people are in great emotional pain and they need help.

    But it happens to be my opinion (and obviously a few others’) that it’s selfish to commit suicide.

    So…does that make me a bad person?

    Apparently, it does.

    You say we have to “live with” somoeone dying, if we think they’ve selfish. And that Gee, I hope suicidal people don’t read this blog.

    It implies that we’re partly responsible if these people kill themselves.

    Um…sorry, I don’t think so.

    If a person is that easily influenced to end their life, then they’re already close to the precipice,and the issues are much deeper than what people think of them, or what a comment thread says.

  25. PS. If anyone’s thnking of killing themselves after reading my comment, for GOD’S SAKES, DON’T DO IT!!!

    Sleep on it…Think about what your’e doing..it’s just not WORTH IT!

    (I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands!)

  26. Julia – It sounds like that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but I guess they never figured they’d need a law to cover this until something like this happened. It will happen too late to punish this guy, but it will happen, no doubt.

    Lili – Thanks for visiting the blog. Human beings do a lot of selfish things. It’s part of being human. Having children can be seen as a selfish thing. Not having children can be seen as a selfish thing. Getting married or staying single can both be seen as selfish. Nobody is saying that people who commit suicide are selfish people and therefore commit suicide. We were just saying that it is an act that does not consider the feelings or lives of other people. It’s part of the darkness that overtakes people at a time like that. They believe no one cares if they live or die. They believe there is no one to talk to and no one who cares. But that’s absolutely not true. No matter who they are or how isolated they may feel there is always someone out there who cares. It might be a stranger who passes by as you’re about to jump off that bridge. That stranger will care because he’s a human being and as a human being holds his fellow human beings’ lives to be precious and worth saving. So, I’m saying suicide (not the people who commit suicide) is selfish because it cannot see beyond self and the feelings of the moment. I hope that if someone in despair reads these comments they will see that there are a lot of people who care very much about people who are hurting and the people who are hurting because they are involved with people who are hurting.

    Friar – Tomorrow is another day (That’s not from Anne of Green Gables is it?) Anyway, it’s a cliché but it’s something people who do think of ending it should keep as their mantra. However bleak things may look today; tomorrow something – some little thing – might happen to let some light into that bleakness. The older you get the more you realize that you really just never know what’s around the next corner. Sometimes it’s bad, but many times it’s a nice surprise. You just have to hang around long enough.

  27. I have to disagree with this:”We were just saying that it is an act that does not consider the feelings or lives of other people. It’s part of the darkness that overtakes people at a time like that.”

    When a suicidal person thinks: Everyone will be better off without me (which they commonly do) those “other people are EXACTLY who they are thinking of. They think everyone thinks they are a burden and the world would be better off without them. It may be “wrong” thinking to everyone else but it happens every single day.

    You think that “suicide” as some sort of entity separate of the person who has spent, days, weeks, years trying to think of other in order to stay alive and finally loses the battle thinks only of itself. Things like this…are just sad.

    No more comments from me but I do hope no suicidal person reads this blog. The banal common trite “regular things” voiced on here would have a suicidal person really upset.

    Things will be better tomorrow, live for someone else if not you, blah,blah,blah. Do you think these people don’t think about “others” every minute of the day? Thus you end up with the apologetic notes to family saying they are sorry, unworthy, and so on and so forth.

    These comments are a very clear indicator why suicidal people stay quiet.

  28. Lili – It may be banal and trite, but it’s also true. You are right that probably most of the people commenting here have never been really close to ending their lives and so maybe don’t understand anything about it- but they’re trying and they do honestly care. I don’t know why you do not want to believe that most people — the people who comment here for instance — are well-meaning and would do everything in their power to help someone, even a stranger, who needed help/asked for help/looked like they were in trouble. Pushing everyone away because you assume (or for some reason want to believe) no one cares or understands anything about you, because you – among all the people on earth – are so unique that your pain can’t possibly be comprehended even by the people who love you; that everyone else in the world is too stupid or banal or trite or “regular” to understand anything about you; that must surely be part of what brings people to the point of not wanting to live anymore. It would be incredibly overwhelming to be faced with that. And if they’re looking to this blog or anything like it for answers, I will be the first to admit that they’re looking in completely the wrong place. There are professionals who deal with this every day who, I assume, will know the right things to do and say and I would urge anyone with thoughts of harming themselves to go and speak to a professional or two or three or however many it takes until you find one who understands and can help. This post was not intended to even delve into that area — I was just wanting to look at the legal problems surrounding cases like this.

  29. He’s a douche.
    As well he has proven himself to be completely untrustworthy in regards to the agreements that he has made.
    I say that he should be forced to live up to his end of the agreement and jump off a bridge.
    On the other hand a sad person has died due to his callousness and that is sad. Sadder still is that with the “friends” she had that KNEW she was in such a state that she would have to resort for support to a chat page.

  30. Lebowski – And she’d apparantly been to a school counsellor too. I sure hope this guy at least gets some professional help if they can’t manage to lock him up for a while.

  31. @Lili

    Maybe our comments aren’t as banal as you think.

    Many people (myself included) have gone through long periods of intense depression at one point or other, in our lives.

    We may not have committed suicide (obviously!) But we’ve been close enough to the edge of the Abyss, that we might have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to feel that way. Maybe we know a little bit what we’re talking about.

    (Now, please, don’t anyone get all concerned about me and send me emails to see if I’m all right…I’m talking about something that happened a long time ago…I’m fine! 🙂 )

  32. XUP-I am appalled at the insensitivity given to you and your mother by that hospital staff and very sorry you had to go through that. I think the family should definitely have some say. It should be a general consensus among the patient (if possible), medical staff and immediate family.

    Anyways, its a complicated issue, but I have watched family members slowly waste away and know what I am talking about. Dying with dignity is an important right, and something that some patients would much prefer over dying a slow, excruciating, degrading death.

    (Sorry for mixing up the countries, since he was American, I forgot that he preyed on someone here)