The mother of Conrad Roy, the teenager who died by suicide in 2014 after another teen urged him to take his own life, testified on Tuesday in favor of a bill that would punish people who induce others to end their own lives.
“The pain never relents,” said Lynn Roy through tears, during brief and emotional testimony at a State House hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
The legislation would make it a crime for anyone to encourage a person they know to be suicidal to take his or her own life, punishable by up to five years in prison. Supporters of the bill have dubbed it “Conrad’s Law.”
“If this law existed, my son’s case would have been settled more easily without a series of appeals, making it quicker and easier for my family to try to move on and move forward with our lives,” Roy said.
Michelle Carter, the young woman who goaded Conrad into suicide through a barrage of calls and texts, was ultimately sentenced to 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter, after legal wrangling over whether she could even be charged with that crime based on her words alone. Carter’s lawyers have asked the US Supreme Court to take up the case.
The grim question that case raised — whether someone can be responsible for another’s death by suicide without even being present — arose again just last month. Boston prosecutors indicted another young woman, Inyoung You, on charges of involuntary manslaughter for pressuring her boyfriend, a Boston College student named Alexander Urtula, to kill himself. He died by suicide on his graduation day in May of this year. Lawmakers supporting Conrad’s Law cited both Urtula and Roy in their testimony.
But critics of the pending bill say that it is too vague, primed to be misused by prosecutors who may rely on it to send people to prison for words alone. “Minimally, a law would need to include First Amendment protections to ensure that encouraging words alone are not criminalized,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement, adding that the issue was “heart-wrenching” and “exceedingly challenging.” The current bill, she said, “lacks those necessary protections.”
Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University who helped to draft the bill and testified on its behalf, said it was “very narrow” and created a high bar for prosecutions.
“It wouldn’t apply to a negligent teenager who sends a batch of rude texts. Or even reckless behavior,” Medwed said. It would only apply to intentional behavior, he said, from someone who knew about and exploited another person’s mental health vulnerabilities. The law has a carve-out for physician-assisted suicide, though it is not currently legal in Massachusetts.
Medwed also testified that more than 40 other states have similar laws to prosecute coerced suicide.
Both Medwed and Senator Barry Finegold, who is cosponsoring the bill with Representative Natalie Higgins, said the new law would allow for more humane sentencing than what is currently allowed under the involuntary manslaughter charge.
“We believe this law is a better way to address such tragic cases than by charging perpetrators with manslaughter, which carries a 20-year maximum prison penalty, and has led to lengthy legal battles that cause victims’ families further trauma,” Finegold said during the testimony.
Carter was 17 years old and had been out of a psychiatric hospital for about a month when she urged Roy, who was 18, to die by suicide in 2014. The teens called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend, though they had seen each other in person only a few times.
Carter was 30 miles away from Roy and on the phone with him, listening as he inhaled carbon monoxide in his pickup truck in a Fairhaven parking lot.
In its ruling upholding her conviction, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court wrote that Massachusetts’ involuntary manslaughter law covers “wanton and reckless conduct” that causes the death of another and that includes “overpowering [another] person’s will to live and resulting in a person’s death.”
“We are therefore not punishing words alone . . . but reckless or wanton words causing death,’’ the SJC ruled.