Involuntary manslaughter charge proposed as penalty for inciting suicide

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 3:56 PM

Daphne Psaledakis

In Missouri, the punishment for inciting suicide is unclear.

April Wilson has seen the limits of the current law firsthand, as the special prosecutor in the case of 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner, who killed himself in 2016. An inquest was called to determine if bullying was a factor in Suttner’s death.

Suttner’s manager at the Fayette Dairy Queen, Harley Branham, was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter.

“I spent the next year researching, poring over all of the evidence, doing initial investigations, to come to the conclusion that (Missouri’s) involuntary manslaughter is most definitely in no shape to handle this type of situation,” Wilson said.

That charge against Branham has been dropped. She still faces a felony stalking charge and four misdemeanor charges.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is seeking to change the guidelines.

She has introduced a bill that would make knowingly inciting “any person to commit self-murder” an involuntary manslaughter offense. The bill includes incitement through technology, such as through text, phone call or social media.

“This is an issue that is very important to address ... in the state of Missouri,” Nasheed said. “Not only are we dealing with it, it’s a national problem, and we must be the leaders when it comes to how we deal with excessive bullying.”

Nasheed decided to propose the bill after hearing about a case in Massachusetts where Michelle Carter was accused of inciting her boyfriend to suicide through text messages in 2014. The judge ruled that Carter was responsible for Conrad Roy III’s death.

Nasheed told lawmakers Monday that when she learned of what Carter had done, “I said ‘OK, I don’t want that to ever happen here in Missouri. And lo and behold, there was a story that occurred.”

Witnesses at the Suttner inquest hearing said that he was bullied by teachers, classmates and Branham.

The Glasgow School District was found to have followed its policies on bullying, but to have been negligent in preventing the bullying, according to previous Missourian reporting.

During a committee hearing Monday, senators asked whether a person would have to explicitly tell the victim to kill themselves, or if continued bullying that led to their suicide would be included in the offense.

Nasheed said the judge and prosecutors would have the discretion to look into individual cases. If it was proven that the person intended to incite the victim to suicide, whether through explicit communication or not, they would be guilty of the offense.

Amending the language of the bill to be clearer on that subject is a possibility, Nasheed said, but she doesn’t feel it needs to be changed.

During the hearing, Wilson testified in support of the bill. The use of smartphones and social media increases the need for the legislation, she said.

“We are unfortunately living in the age... where committing suicide is a punchline. This is a joke to our teens,” Wilson said. “The generation that is going to be our leaders in the future look at this as a joke, as a punchline, and so I think those acts are going to become more overt.”

Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler, who called the inquest into the Suttner case, also testified in support of the bill. There was no testimony against the bill.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

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