Over the years, we have discussed the prosecution of people who encourage friends or strangers to commit suicide. I have raised free speech concerns over prior prosecutions in the ambiguous line often drawn by prosecutors. The most recent case of Inyoung You, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last week after repeatedly telling her boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, to kill himself. Both were students at Boston College and had a tumultuous 18 month relationship.
The couple met at Boston College and police say that You was highly abusive to Urtule. Her calls for his suicide reportedly began after she learned that he had met with his former girlfriend.
In a case similar to that of the Michele Carter prosecution in Massachusetts, You encouraged Urtula to kill himself. This case, however, is even worse with You sending a “barrage” of more than 75,000 text messages, including repeated calls for him to kill himself. In one text to the 22-year-old, she told him “do everyone a favor and go f**king kill yourself, you’re such a f**king stupid ass worthless s**t.” Urtule proceeded to jump off the top of a building just hours before his graduation with his family from New Jersey waiting to watch him walk across the stage.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said that You was “physically, verbally, and psychologically abusive” toward Urtula and the “abuse became more frequent and more powerful, and more demeaning, in the days and hours leading up to” his death. She stressed that she was “aware of his spiraling depression and suicidal thoughts brought on by her abuse. Yet, she persisted.”
Caitlin Grasso, an assistant district attorney, said that You used her iPhone to track Urtula’s location and was on the roof when he jumped around 8:30 a.m. He was scheduled to graduate at 10:00 a.m.
You later fled to her native South Korea and reportedly maintained that she was on the roof to try to stop him.
You’s guilty plea comes with an agreement that she will undergo mental health treatment and do community service. In addition, she may not profit from any portrayal of the case over the next 10 years.
You’s conduct is clearly disgusting and reprehensible. My concern in these cases is how such prosecutions could be used to criminalize speech related to suicide. Many advocate for the right to die and often share information on ways to killing oneself with the least amount of pain. Moreover, there are concerns about people who engage in reckless or hyperbolic speech. There has been a long debate over the culpability of people who routinely yell up to people on ledges or bridges to jump. Historically, such horrific conduct has been treated as an exercise of free speech or at least not criminally culpable in any subsequent suicide. The problem is that free speech demands “bright lines” and this standard could not be more murky.
It is hard to raise such concerns in the context of this type of case. The loss to the Urtula family is unimaginable. The trauma of learning of Alexander’s suicide as they waited to watch him graduate must have been overwhelming. One would hope that this plea could bring even a small degree of solace for the family. However, we need to address the implications of these prosecutions and how to define this crime to avoid a broader criminalization of speech.