Now even committing suicide has gone online
By TODD C. FRANKEL
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 06/08/2003 08:27 AM
The instructions downloaded from the Internet were explicit, and, according to police, followed precisely by a 52-year-old St. Louis woman in taking her own life Monday.
Printouts from the Web site left nearby described how to use helium to cause asphyxiation, exactly as she did. This is the Web site's "recommended method."
It is worrisome advice to someone on the edge, say people who study suicide and its causes.
To authorities, the Web site is a killer.
The suicide victim "would not have killed herself but for that content," St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said last week. She wants to pursue voluntary manslaughter charges against the person responsible for providing that information. It is a novel legal tactic and one that faces several hurdles. But Joyce is not inclined to give up. "It's worth exploring in this case," she said.
Information about how to commit suicide is already available in books. The most famous one is the 1991 bestseller "Final Exit," published by a leader of the euthanasia movement. Now the Internet - and its far reach - is a player. What was once taboo or hard-to-find can be tracked down in an instant with a search engine. Type in the right words and hundreds of sites appear. Google, a leading search engine, even has a formal directory for sites listing methods for suicide.
Few cases of Internet-inspired suicides have been documented in the United States. But it is a troubling development for mental health experts, who see these Web sites as having a dangerous allure to someone who is thinking about taking his or her own life. So-called suicide sites already have prompted alarm in other countries, like Britain, where the government announced in March it is investigating the feasibility of censoring sites that promote suicide.
Suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the cause for 29,350 deaths in 2000 - nearly twice the number of homicides, and about a third less than fatal motor vehicle accidents. The disease control agency estimates there were 734,000 suicide attempts in 2000.
Missouri is among 35 states who have criminalized assisted suicide, what is commonly thought of as a physician giving lethal drugs to a terminally ill patient. It is under this law that prosecutors are considering charges in the St. Louis woman's death.
Under state law, voluntary manslaughter occurs when "a person knowingly assists another in the commission of self-murder." It is a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison. But prosecutors can't charge the Web site. They need to find the person responsible for the content, who wrote the suicide instructions.
"Until the suspect is identified, I have no legal grounds," Joyce said, adding that police are working on that.
Proving that the person behind the Web site intended for the St. Louis woman to kill herself would be very difficult, said Christopher Bracey, an assistant law professor at Washington University.
Bracey said the law addresses what is called "incitement to suicide," like a doctor actively helping someone die. A Web site is a passive provider of information, so the connection is harder to prove, he said.
But Bracey said he understands the desire to prosecute. "When there's the suggestion that some outside influence, some person, played a significant role in causing someone's death, we want to hold that person morally accountable and punish them," he said.
Tracking down the person behind the Web site will be a challenge. The site, run by an outfit called Church of Euthanasia, provides scant information on its domain registration. Subsequent attempts to track down people connected with the Web site also were unsuccessful.
The site comes off as bizarre, perhaps less-than-serious performance art. It tests the bounds of good taste by promoting suicide and cannibalism as ways to reduce the world's population. The church is the creation of Chris Korda, according to the site. Public records show he at one point lived in Massachusetts. In August 1997, Korda appeared on "The Jerry Springer Show" to tout his so-called church.
Korda's Web site is one of dozens containing advice on suicide methods.
The operators of a now-defunct site, Asphyxiation.com, are being sued by a family in Arkansas, who charge them with negligently contributing to a 21-year-old woman's suicide in February 2001. The young woman died of a self-inflicted hanging, her computer still logged onto the Web site, which detailed how to perform the act, according to the family's attorney, Mark Colucci of Youngstown, Ohio.
"From all indications, she followed the instructions to a 'T,'" Colucci said last week.
"In her state of mind," Colucci said of the borderline retarded woman with emotional problems, "she would not have known to do this without the site."
The case is pending.
Lucy Davidson with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in Newton, Mass., calls the suicide sites insidious. It is estimated that 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, so they are not approaching their decision with a level head. These Web sites provide a dangerous service to people unable to fully comprehend their decision, Davidson said.
"Persons who come to these information sources may have tunnel vision and may believe it's the only way to relieve whatever position they're in," Davidson said.
A British report in 1999 backed up her concern, finding that sites advising on suicide methods may discourage people from seeking psychiatric help. Dr. Herbert Hendin, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York, said he hopes prosecutors are able to tackle this new but growing problem.
"I think any society should have a way of preventing something that encourages suicide," Hendin said.
The boyfriend of the St. Louis woman who committed suicide is hopeful the case against the Web site will be successful. His girlfriend had a history of clinical depression, he said, but she would not have known how to use helium to kill herself without the site's instruction.
"She followed it verbatim," said the boyfriend, who asked that his name not be used. "She got 100 percent of it from that site."
He found her Monday afternoon.
"It's destroyed my life," he said.
Todd C. Frankel of the Post-Dispatch is a general assignment reporter who has written on the Internet's impact on public life.