Does Encouraging Someone To Commit Suicide Make You A Criminal?

Posted on: 3 June 2016

Assisted suicide has been a hot-button debate for decades, ever since Jack Kevorkian got the nickname "Dr. Death" for helping his patients with terminal illnesses take their own lives. However, what if you don't actually assist someone with their suicide, but merely encourage it? Does merely encouraging someone to commit suicide make you a criminal? This is what you should know.

You may be charged with assisting a suicide anyhow.

There are only a few states where assisting in a suicide isn't considered a crime. Even in those states, you have to be a physician in order to legally assist with someone's death (although that may change in the future, depending on how the legal issue plays out in New Mexico).

When most people think of "assisted suicide," they probably picture someone handing the suicidal person pills or a loaded gun. However, a nurse in Minnesota was charged with two counts of aiding suicide for using the Internet to encourage people to take their own lives. He admitted to encouraging dozens of people to commit suicide over the years, simply for the "thrill of the chase," and sometimes made suicide pacts with others. He even gave one man technical advice on how to hang himself.

The penalties for assisting in a suicide vary widely from state to state, but jail time is a good possibility. For example, the Minnesota nurse was ultimately sentenced to 3 years in jail, although he'll only have to serve 6 months if he complies with his 10-year probation.

You could also be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

If the circumstances warrant it, you could also face a form of manslaughter charges, which holds you criminally responsible for the death of another. For example, a Massachusetts teenager is currently being prosecuted for her role in her boyfriend's death. Prosecutors have charged her with involuntary manslaughter, a slightly lesser offense, for encouraging her depressed boyfriend to end his life over a series of text messages. 

The teen's defense attorneys say that her motives behind the texts were misunderstood, but that may not matter in court. Involuntary manslaughter doesn't require the action to be malicious, only inherently dangerous or with reckless disregard for another's life. Prosecutors maintain that the teen knew her boyfriend was suicidal and that her encouragement could push him into action.

While the penalties for involuntary manslaughter vary widely among the states, they're generally severe. In Massachusetts, for example, the teenager now faces up to 20 years in prison if she's convicted.

You don't have an absolute right to free speech.

While there are people who argue that verbally encouraging someone to commit suicide should be protected as part of free speech, the law isn't on their side. The law limits free speech when it is either part of a criminal action (like assisting a suicide) or a crime itself (a reckless act that leads to someone's death).

That means that the wrong rash comment or ill-chosen words typed out in a text, on Facebook, or in a chat room somewhere can lead to serious legal consequences. The best thing to do, naturally, is avoid getting into that situation. However, if you've made a mistake and find yourself part of a criminal investigation surrounding a suicide, talk to a defense attorney from a firm like Ewbank & Kramer today.