We’ve seen the scenario play out countless times in movies and TV shows: a disturbed individual stands on the roof of a building, poised to jump to his death. A crowd of onlookers has gathered to watch in morbid curiosity. Inevitably some sicko yells “jump!”
The person either jumps to his/her death, or attempts to do
so and is saved at the last second by the protagonist – whatever the plot
But what would be the real-life legal consequences for the person who encouraged the jumper to take the plunge, assuming they actually did jump to their death?
What if the encouragement doesn’t happen in person, but over
the Internet? I’ve discussed at length the possible routes to criminal
liability for someone who drives another person to suicide, including the
possibility of homicide charges. However, that was in the context of people who
tormented a person who was (presumably) not suicidal until years of bullying
and humiliation sapped them of their will to live.
What about people who are already suicidal, and just looking for someone to talk to? The New York Times has a fascinating, though somewhat disturbing, story of a person who may just answer these thorny legal questions.
A male nurse went onto many websites populated by people who
were contemplating suicide, and posed as a female nurse, advising them on the
most effective methods, and encouraging them to “let go.
While the debate around assisted suicide is somewhat controversial, even the most fervent right-to-die supporters generally agree that it should be reserved as a last resort, when a person is suffering from a terminal illness and in unbearable pain. Apparently, many of the people who this person coached in suicide were not terminally ill, and were simply depressed.
At least 2 suicides have been definitively linked to this person’s conduct, though he freely admits that there are likely more, perhaps “dozens.”
The fact that this person is being charged with the assisted
suicides of people he never met raises some very interesting, and slightly
disturbing, legal questions.
Whatever your views on assisted suicide (I personally think that a terminally ill patient should be free to end their own life, and enlist the help of a doctor or nurse, if need be), it’s usually pretty clear what falls under its definition, and what doesn’t. For example, providing somebody with a gun that you know they’re going to use to commit suicide clearly counts as assisted suicide.
Doing what Dr. Jack Kevorkian did, and hooking a patient up to a machine which allows the patient to self-administer a lethal dose of drugs also counts.
However, when the “assistance” provided comes solely in the
form of words, and not actions, you get into some thorny ethical, and even
constitutional, issues. The law under which this nurse is being charged includes
in its definition of assisted suicide “encouraging” a person to end their own
life. On its face, this seems reasonable, but where do you draw the line?
For example, coming out and saying to someone “I think you should commit suicide” would be a clear case of encouraging suicide, assuming the person actually goes through with it. But what if you’re simply debating the morality of suicide with a person who’s contemplating it, and happen to believe that there’s nothing inherently wrong with ending your own life, in certain cases? Suppose further that the person you were debating with was considering suicide, and your arguments tipped them in that direction.
Could that be punished as assisted suicide? I certainly hope
Some legal experts seem to agree, arguing that, without a very clear and rigid definition of what it means to “encourage” suicide, the law under which this former nurse is being charged is almost certainly so vague as to be unconstitutional.
It’s well settled that the constitution allows certain laws
to be “void for vagueness” if they don’t put people on reasonable notice of
what is and is not prohibited. Due process requires that laws be written
clearly enough that a reasonable person would have a good idea of what the law
A law which simply prohibits “encouraging” a given act certainly opens itself up for challenges on these grounds. And while the lawyers for the nurse aren’t discussing any possible defenses this seems like a good one to raise on appeal, if he is in fact convicted.
Obviously, this is a very sticky moral and legal question. Even if you, as I do, find this person’s conduct reprehensible, he deserves a fair trial, if nothing else. And just as important, he deserves to be tried under laws which pass constitutional muster. If he ends up going free because this law is unconstitutional, it could fairly be seen as an injustice. However, that should prompt state legislatures to choose their words more carefully next time.
By: Rusty Shackleford