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Boston College student’s coerced suicide prompts push for ‘Conrad’s Law’

Telegram & Gazette - 11/13/2019

BOSTONMassachusetts remains one of only eight states that does not explicitly criminalize coercion of suicide, despite multiple cases over the last five years in which people were pressured into suicide by their significant others.

In wake of the most recent case – the coerced suicide of Boston College student Alexander Urtula by his girlfriend, Inyoung You, in May – some lawmakers are pushing to fast-track a bill that would designate a new criminal charge for these specific circumstances.

The bill, dubbed "Conrad's Law," was named for Conrad Roy III, a teenager who died by suicide in 2014 under the encouragement of his girlfriend Michelle Carter. Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a high-profile 2017 case and began serving her 15-month prison sentence earlier this year.

Roy's mother, Lynn, joined bill sponsors Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, at the Statehouse Tuesday to urge immediate action in light of her son's and Urtula's suicides.

"I always thought, after everything came up in this case with Michelle and Conrad, that there's definitely other women like her in the world and certainly other young men just like my son," she said after testifying before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. "I do not want another mother to ever feel the way I do."

"Conrad's Law" would classify coerced suicide as a separate crime with a maximum sentence of five years, rather than the potential 20-year sentence Carter and You faced for involuntary manslaughter. The bill is narrowly tailored to criminalize only the intentional encouragement of suicide when a defendant is aware of the victim's suicidal tendencies.

Though the bill also prohibits providing someone with the "physical means" to commit suicide, it includes an exemption for physicians who administer lawful medical treatments.

Finegold said he hopes the bill will send teenagers a clear message that this behavior is not only unacceptable, but criminal.

"As a father of teenagers, I share many other parents' concerns," Finegold said. "I see on a daily basis how influential young people are to one another."

The senator said he thinks Urtula's coerced suicide alerted fellow lawmakers to the urgency of the matter.

"We are facing an epidemic of teen suicide," Finegold said. "When you look at our teenagers, drunk driving among our teenagers is way down. Pregnancy among our teenager is way down. Teen suicide, way up."

While critics of the Carter case and opponents of "Conrad's Law" have argued that criminalizing any form of speech violates the First Amendment, Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed said he thinks there is enough leeway in the Constitution to pass such a bill.

"The First Amendment isn't an all-encompassing blanket," Medwed explained. "It's a patchwork quilt. And if you weaponize words, if you use words intentionally in order to cause someone to commit suicide, then perhaps that should be a criminal act."

When Medwed first heard about Carter's involuntary manslaughter charge, he said, he was concerned about prosecutorial overreach. Though the defense attorney seldom advocates for an increase to the criminal code, he said a more specific charge with a shorter maximum sentence would have better suited the crime.

"Using the hammer of manslaughter, a homicide charge with a potential sentence of 20 years, to address this type of situation struck me as problematic," he said.

Higgins, who studied law under Medwed at Northeastern, said she intends for the bill to remove some of the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourage teenagers to seek professional help.

"Someone who's going to coerce a peer, a friend, a significant other into suicide probably has their own mental health needs themselves," she said, noting that this legislation is only the first step in reducing the state's youth suicide rate.other of suicide victim Conrad Roy III, speaks alongside Rep. Natalie Higgins and Sen. Barry Finegold at the Statehouse Tuesday in support of a bill that would criminalize coerced suicide in Massachusetts. (Photo by Hannah Schoenbaum)

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