Massachusetts prosecutors should have a tailor-made law to bring charges against defendants like Inyoung You. You is the 21-year-old who, Suffolk County prosecutors said Monday, badgered her boyfriend into killing himself, a case that bears similarities to the 2017 conviction of Michelle Carter for pressuring her boyfriend into suicide.
If the allegations are true, You deserves to follow Carter to prison. Yet the Commonwealth does not specifically outlaw coerced suicide, and prosecutors have instead relied on involuntary manslaughter charges. State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would explicitly make coerced suicide an offense, with penalties to fit the crime, and Monday’s case underscores anew why such legislation is needed.
According to prosecutors, You psychologically and physically abused her boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, over an 18-month relationship, and repeatedly urged him to kill himself. The two exchanged 75,000 text messages, which Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said showed You’s “complete and total control over Mr. Urtula both mentally and emotionally.”
Urtula — like Conrad Roy III, Carter’s victim — suffered from depression. Under pressure from You, Urtula ended his life on May 20, the day he was to graduate from Boston College.
In the Carter case, critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, portrayed the verdict as a threat to free speech, and raised worries that punishing her could chill end-of-life conversations between doctors and patients. The free speech argument has made little headway in the courts, and for good reason: “We are . . . not punishing words alone . . . but reckless or wanton words causing death,” as Justice Scott Kafker wrote in upholding the verdict. Power dynamics in domestic violence cases make Carter’s bullying of Roy, or the way prosecutors say You treated Urtula, easily distinguishable from a conversation a patient might have with a doctor.
Still, a bill filed by state Senator Barry Finegold and state Representative Natalie Higgins would address those concerns by writing a definition of coerced suicide into state law, and making clear that end-of-life conversations with doctors do not qualify. It would also address the concern that prosecutors are overcharging — involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 20 years in prison — by making the punishment for coerced suicide approriate to the crime. It sets the maximum prison term at five years.
A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Nov. 12. “The fact that this already happened again, three months after we filed the legislation, shows that there’s a problem out there,” Finegold said. “This law would arm district attorneys with the necessary tools to get some type of plea agreement if this person is in fact guilty.”
It’s now sadly obvious that the Carter case was not unique. To secure justice for Conrad Roy — and now, Alexander Urtula — prosecutors have had to make clever use of involuntary manslaughter charges. But it would be appropriate for the Legislature to provide them with a tool specifically intended for the rare but horrifying cases when vulnerable people are coerced into causing their own death.