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Suicide and Justice

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Is a potential suicide a “flight risk”?

Woman charged with causing fatal I-95 crash put on suicide watch

STAMFORD — A Superior Court judge on Monday set bond at $35,000 for the Hartford woman accused of causing a crash that killed two people over the weekend on Interstate 95 in Darien.

Yadira Torres, 26, of 100 Benton St., Hartford, was put on suicide watch after her arraignment at state Superior Court in Stamford, where she faces two counts of second-degree manslaughter and single charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. Around 6 a.m. Saturday she was driving a rented 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT north on I-95 when she tried to pass a tractor-trailer but lost control and hit it, according to a State Police accident report. (ctpost.com)

The most interesting thing is that the prosecutor argued that the defendant is a flight risk in large part based on her being “distraught” over what happened:

Before the ruling Assistant State’s Attorney David Applegate argued Torres was a flight-risk.

“The defendant does pose a flight risk due to the serious charges and the anxiety that attorney Crosland has pointed out,” Applegate said, referring to earlier remarks from Crosland that detailed his client’s distraught state of mind over the fatal crash.

Is killing yourself the same as flight from justice?

In response to an article describing a particularly spectacular suicide, that is, a leap from the world’s tallest building, one commenter asserts:

The man surely needed psychological help. Sane people do not commit suicide unless they’re evading public humiliation & arrest (avoiding justice).

The commenter implicitly accepts a dichotomy: suicide is either the result of insanity, or a moral wrong.

Seemingly sane people commit suicide all the time in order to avoid “public humiliation & arrest” or other forms of social death. It is impossible to maintain the conviction that only insane people commit suicide when the plain evidence is to the contrary: sane people frequently commit suicide for completely understandable reasons.

People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality.

For the good of whom, though? Certainly not their own. The good of the victims, perhaps – if any remain – although it must be an ambivalent and diffuse sort of “good,” in that case.

Perhaps it is for the good of the future victims of similar actions. If people knew they could just commit suicide instantly and painlessly at any moment – like switching a computer game off – would that be incredibly dangerous? Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?

I think they might. And I think this shows us something very important about existence:

In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.

It puts an upper bound on the value of the so-called precious gift of life.

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Written by Sister Y

May 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm

91-Year-Old Woman Selling Suicide Kits Online Claims First Official Fictim

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From the Daily Beast:

A shadowy online company selling suicide kits recently claimed its first confirmed victim. Winston Ross talks exclusively with the entrepreneur behind it: a grieving 91-year-old woman.

People who wish to kill themselves and who order a kit THROUGH THE FREAKIN’ MAIL to enact those wishes are not “victims.”

People who die in an automobile collision caused by a man attempting suicide, who was unable to commit suicide by other means, are victims.

People who are forced to remain alive when they want to die, often in horrible circumstances like akinetic mutism (can’t move or speak) after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, are victims. (That goes double when they have medical experiments performed on them without their consent, as happened in the case linked above. There was no ethical outcry; the study was widely touted as a breakthrough. It makes me want to vomit.)

People who want to die and commit suicide are just lucky.

I envy the fictim in this case, Nick Klonoski, a 29-year-old man with chronic pain and depression. However, his bereaved brother Zach sees things differently. He testified at a hearing:

“In a society where so many people suffer from depression and other mental-health disorders,” Zach said, “this company has found their niche in the market by peddling death. This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic. The Gladd company, so named as to avoid suspicion in case family members happen to sign for or come across the package, made $60 off my brother’s death.”

What about the people making money off our misery – like the medical industry, which makes billions every year forcibly “treating” would-be suicides in an often horrific manner? What is wrong, exactly, with “peddling death” when death is heartily desired? None of us asked to be here.

The fact is that while people’s willingness to pay to improve people’s lives is extremely limited, their willingness to demand regulation to prevent people from taking their own lives is nearly infinite. In essence, this is an involuntary, uncompensated transfer of wealth from suicidal, miserable people, the worst off of society, to their nonsuicidal friends and relatives. It is all done under the flag of the medical model of suicide, which is treated as a religious fact rather than examined as a scientific proposition (since examined as such it is clearly erroneous).

One important piece of information here: the helium thing apparently works (here’s a video, even). I wonder how long it will take for forced life advocates to make helium illegal. Oh wait – it’s already happening.

Written by Sister Y

April 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

With a .22

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I. Fourteen Shots

He shot himself fourteen times with a squirrel rifle. “It is probably the most incredible kind of suicide I have ever seen,” says P. Boxho, reporting the case in the Journal of Forensic Science (“Fourteen shots for a suicide,” 101:1:71-77, 1999).

The man, a 56-year-old Belgian, used such a low-energy weapon (.22 LR cartridges in a 22 mm rifle) that he had to shoot himself fourteen times in the chest in order to effect his end – and, even after fourteen shots, his death was slow. He had to operate the bolt of his rifle between shots, and, most incredibly, he had to reload after the first seven shots. According to Boxho,

The last bullet was certainly the one that went through his left arm for, with a humerus fracture and the fatigue generated by developing hypovolemia, it was getting impossible for him to reload the gun and to keep shooting.

So he had to lie down in the position in which he was found and to wait for death to come.

That death was certainly very slow for, considering their trajectories, the projectiles could only go through his lung, maybe skim past his heart, causing a slow haemorrhage, responsible for death by a hypovolemical shock.

II. Christmas Money

Mychal Bell, best known as one of the Jena Six, shot himself with a .22 pistol. Bell became despondent after being charged with shoplifting, he says.

Police say surveillance video appears to show Bell stuffing merchandise into a bag in a Dillard’s store while another male seems to serve as a lookout.

Bell walked out with the bag without paying, officials said, and a security guard approached and took it from him. Police said Bell and the other male fled, and guards chased Bell because he’d had the bag. Authorities say it contained $370 worth of clothes.

Bell hid under a car in the parking lot, and as a store security officer tried to pull Bell out, he hit the guard in the face with his elbow, police said. Bell, who was charged with shoplifting, simple battery and resisting arrest, was released on bail, according to authorities.

Investigators don’t know who the other male was, and Bell “admitted to everything” to a detective, Lt. Jeff Harris said.

He decided to use his Christmas money to buy a gun, and eventually obtained the .22-caliber handgun. And then he “went awry” at his grandmother’s house, he said.

He aimed it at his head and pulled the trigger, he said, but the gun misfired. Then he pointed the gun at his chest and fired. The bullet clipped his lung, and he was taken to the hospital and treated. It is not clear who found him, or whether he was alone in the house at the time of the shooting.

Does someone who shoots himself in the chest with a .22 really mean to die? It seems that our Belgian man did. However, given the limited availability of reliable means of suicide, I think it is best not to make a hasty judgment that someone did not want to die, and was merely seeking attention and sympathy, based only on the choice of an ineffective method. Perhaps an ineffective method is all the potential suicide could access.

III. Low-Energy Weapons

The term “multiple gunshot wound suicide” is often used sarcastically – a joke, meaning that the alleged suicide was really a homicide, but was (poorly) made to look like a suicide. However, about 1% of gunshot suicides involve multiple wounds. The majority of these multiple gunshot wound suicides involve those aforementioned squirrel guns (or plinkers) – .22 caliber handguns. A .22 is such a low-energy weapon that a single shot may not be enough to bring about death.

IV. Suicide Black Widow

Terry Cottle shot himself behind his right ear with a .22-caliber handgun in 1995. His wife, Cheryl, was present at the time of his death.

Initially, Cheryl told sheriff’s investigators she heard 10-year-old Christopher shouting that Cottle had shot himself. She said she ran into the bathroom and found him on the floor with the revolver still in his hand.

In a second version attached to a coroner’s report, Cheryl said she was eating oatmeal when one of her boys yelled, “Mom, Dad has a gun!” She said she ran toward the bathroom “and saw Terry standing up and looking at her” with the gun in his hand.

“She said that she yelled something like, `Terry, wait!’, and this was at about the same time as she pushed on the door to try to get into the bathroom and at the same time she heard a shot,” the report says.

Cottle was taken to the hospital, but was removed from life support and his organs donated. 57-year-old Sonny Graham received Cottle’s heart.

What makes the story, though, is that a few husbands later, Cottle’s widow Cheryl married Sonny Graham.

Then Graham shot himself.

If your mind weren’t poisoned with Cheryl’s sordid history and strange behavior, you might be tempted to romantically contemplate “cellular memory” or something. But the story seems darker. There were other gun incidents involving her other three husbands. And there’s this shocking failure of proper feminine decorum and chastity:

On her MySpace account – now deactivated – her photo changed from a sweetly smiling portrait to pictures of her on a lake or drinking beer with friends. Her screen name changed, too, from simply “Cheryl” to “PrEttY LAdy,” then “BeaUtiFuL MeSs.”

Family members monitoring the account noticed that shortly after Graham’s death, she posted a man’s photo identifying him as her “new boyfriend.” A flirtatious message on the man’s Web page, from her account, was dated March 26 – six days before Graham’s death.

I find this story remarkable because it is the first time I’ve ever seen a mainstream news outlet imply that a suicide was caused by another person – rather than by, say, mental illness. “Implied” may be too soft a word:

As far as [Cottle’s sister] was concerned, Graham’s death was less about her brother’s heart than about Cheryl – the woman with whom both men had chosen to share it.

Written by Sister Y

May 13, 2009 at 1:09 am

Disincentives, Time Horizons, and the Irrational Continuation of Life

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Social science researcher David Phillips was a pioneer in the theory of suicide contagion. His research has also focused on other fascinating correlates of suicide (and other fatalities), such as day of the month, public holidays, and birthdays.

As these last few professional interests suggest, identification of dates has been important to Dr. Phillips. A 1988 paper * focused on potential difference between deaths from suicide and the suicidal acts or injuries that preceded them. A significant difference in date of suicide attempt and date of death would, of course, be relevant to Dr. Phillips’ studies on how date affects suicide rates.

The motivation for the paper is a 1985 study on a San Diego population that found a whopping 22% difference between date of injury (suicide attempt) and date of death in cases of suicide. The San Diego study analyzed 204 cases of suicide; its findings cast doubt on whether date of death was a good proxy for date of suicidal act.

Phillips and Sanzone, however, studied a much larger sample – 42,698 suicides throughout California – and found that 92.6% of suicide deaths occur within one day of the precipitating suicidal act. In terms relevant to my project, that means that only 7.4% of people who commit suicide have to suffer more than a day before dying.

7.4%. About one in fourteen.

To a potential suicide, this is terrifying – not least because these are the people who succeed. This doesn’t even include the suffering of those who attempt suicide but fail – and are left miserable, with grievous injuries, trapped in a life worse than the one they attempted to leave.

If life is so bad, though, wouldn’t it be worth the risk?

The problem is a possibly irrational time horizon perceived by the potential suicide.

When we decide whether to commit suicide (to shoot ourselves in the head, say, or mix up some community-endangering hydrogen sulfide gas), the risks and benefits of suicide should, rationally, be weighed against the risks and benefits of continuing to live. But “continuing to live” for how long? One rational-sounding candidate would be “continuing to live out one’s natural life span.” Indeed, for most of us, continuing to live our natural life span is unthinkably horrible – much, much worse than the considerable risks of a careful suicide attempt.

But one’s natural life span is difficult to consider. The more tempting, and probably irrational, option – one I find myself preoccupied with – is to weigh the risks and benefits of a suicide attempt with the risks and benefits of living another day or week. Perhaps next week drugs will be legalized. Perhaps next week one will die in an automobile collision or be diagnosed with a fatal illness. Living another day, another week, another month, even six months, is certainly no worse than the alternative – risking extremely serious harm from a suicide attempt. As Dr. Phillips and others demonstrate, even the ones who succeed risk extreme and prolonged suffering.

This is yet another way in which the suicide prohibition encourages irrationality. This is neither just nor compassionate.


*Phillips, David, and Anthony Sanzone. “A Comparison of Injury Date and Death Date in 42,698 Suicides.American Journal of Public Health 78:5:541 (1988).

Rich, Charles, Deborah Young, Richard Fowler, and S.K.S. Rosenfeld. “The Difference between Date of Suicidal Act and Recorded Death Certificate Date in 204 Consecutive Suicides.American Journal of Public Health 75:7:778 (1985).

Written by Sister Y

April 7, 2009 at 3:42 am

The Source of All My Nightmares

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Is suicide difficult? Since there is a prohibition, in our society, on the drugs that provide the only reliable, painless method for suicide, suicide is, in practice, very difficult. Suicides are left with a choice among unsatisfactory methods – to say the least. The suicide must shoot himself in the head, cut his arteries, hang himself, or worse, if he genuinely wishes to die. Failure to appreciate the difficulty of suicide has led many otherwise intelligent people to think that there is no need for “assisted suicide” (provision of drugs). The reality is that suicide is unfairly difficult, the methods available unfairly cruel.

But it gets worse. The terrifying reality is that, even if one shoots oneself in the head or hangs oneself, it is no guarantee of death. Advance directives refusing care after one’s suicide are not respected. Plenty of people attempt suicide by one of these methods and survive, with consequences in some cases more horrible than continuing to live would have been. Lying in a state of akinetic mutism while doctors perform medical experiments on one is no one’s desire, and is not an acceptable “consequence” to inflict on a suicide.

A poignantly brief article in the Baltimore Sun, “Woman wounded in apparent suicide try,” crystallizes the horror of the above dilemma:

A woman was found shot in the head in West Baltimore yesterday afternoon in an apparent suicide attempt, said police spokeswoman Nicole Monroe. The woman was found at Edgemont and Parkwood avenues about 12:51 p.m., Monroe said. The woman, whose name was not released, survived the shooting, Monroe said last night, but her condition was unavailable. [Emphasis mine.]

Written by Sister Y

March 27, 2009 at 12:09 am

The Drug Prohibition and the Right to Suicide

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Back in 1997, in The Atlantic, Ezekiel Emanuel wrote:

Rational people should be able to end their own lives; suicide should remain decriminalized. But to say that is a far cry from saying that people have a right to have others, namely physicians and pharmacists, help them to end their lives. The ability to commit suicide is what Isaiah Berlin called a “negative liberty” — a liberty to keep others from interfering with the individual. The right to euthanasia is a positive liberty — a liberty to have others help to realize an individual’s goal. The justifications for negative liberties are widely accepted, and the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of negative liberties; positive liberties are affirmed only when necessary to ensure robust participation in public affairs and to preserve essential opportunities. It is hard to see how granting a right to PAS and euthanasia is necessary to either of those goals.

In any case, the number of dying patients who have unremitting pain or who want to die and are physically incapable of killing themselves is very small — a few thousand of the 2.3 million Americans who die each year.

There is a right to suicide, claims Dr. Emanuel – a right not to be interfered with. Of course, in practical terms, Dr. Emanuel is terribly mistaken, even in his conception of the right to suicide as a negative right: the state regularly and predictably interferes with individuals attempting to commit suicide. Pro-forced-life U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has stated, in his concurring opinion in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, that

It has always been lawful not only for the State, but even for private citizens, to interfere with bodily integrity to prevent a felony. That general rule has of course been applied to suicide. At common law, even a private person’s use of force to prevent suicide was privileged. It is not even reasonable, much less required by the Constitution, to maintain that, although the State has the right to prevent a person from slashing his wrists, it does not have the power to apply physical force to prevent him from doing so, nor the power, should he succeed, to apply, coercively if necessary, medical measures to stop the flow of blood. The state-run hospital, I am certain, is not liable under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violation of constitutional rights, nor the private hospital liable under general tort law, if, in a State where suicide is unlawful, it pumps out the stomach of a person who has intentionally taken an overdose of barbiturates, despite that person’s wishes to the contrary. [Citations omitted.]

Justice Scalia unfortunately states the policy of our country: it is decidedly one of interfering, using as drastic and invasive means as possible, with an individual’s decision to commit suicide.

Even if we did live in the fairy land that Dr. Emanuel apparently hails from, in which there exists a “negative right” to suicide, there is still the problem of means. Dr. Emanuel says that there is no need for “assisted suicide,” because one can perfectly well off oneself, and one has no right to have another person assist one in the act. However, again Dr. Emanuel ignores the sad reality that all would-be suicides face: the only means to commit suicide that are reliable and comfortable enough so as to not be objectionably cruel are in the exclusive hands of doctors. With barbiturates under the strict control of doctors, the “right to suicide” doesn’t mean much.

As long as there is a drug prohibition, there will be a moral need for “assisted suicide.” Remove the drug prohibition – at least, the prohibition on barbiturates – and there will no longer be a moral need for “assisted suicide,” at least for able-bodied people.

Dr. Emanuel assures us that “the number of dying patients who have unremitting pain or who want to die and are physically incapable of killing themselves is very small.” I wonder what he means by “physically incapable” of killing oneself. Unable (or unwilling) to shoot oneself in the head with a shotgun? To slash one’s artery with a knife? To hang oneself? Is the “right” to do one of these things – and potentially be dragged back to life if one fails to die – really all the “right” that is morally called for?

Like many forced life advocates, Dr. Emanuel offers a comforting vision of an imaginary world, to distract us from having real compassion for suffering people in the real world.

Tragically, Dr. Emanuel is the Chair of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health.

Edit: In summary, my problem is this: there is a general drug prohibition on sleeping pills that are lethal at high doses, and there are policy reasons for that, however misguided. In addition, there are good reasons why a person should not have the right to expect another person – here, a doctor – to assist him in committing suicide. But when you put these two sensible-sounding propositions together (drug prohibition and no right to assistance), they no longer make ethical sense. One of them has to give.

Written by Sister Y

December 16, 2008 at 5:07 am

Debbie Purdy, "Death Plants," and the Suicide Prohibition

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Catherine Bennett writes a forceful article addressing Debbie Purdy’s battle to clarify Britain’s law regarding assisted suicide (“Let this woman die as she chooses, not in a death plant“).

Bennett argues that forcing people to die in a “corporate” manner rather than as they choose – that is, according to the religious whims of other people – is barbaric. And it is doubly awful to force dying people to travel to creepy “death plants” in Zurich, rather than allowing them to die peacefully in their own homes.

Bennett is too optimistic, however, about the prospects for suicide in able-bodied people. She writes:

The whole country now knows that Ms Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has thought in detail about when and how she wishes to die. When the pain of her illness becomes intolerable, she would like to have the choice, as the able-bodied do, of taking her own life. [Emphasis mine.]

I think one of the biggest problems for those who favor an institutional right to suicide is this tendency for non-suicidal people to assume that suicide is a simple thing to accomplish. I think many people favor a right to suicide – but they wrongly assume that able-bodied people today currently enjoy a meaningful right to suicide. It’s not true. Reliably lethal means of committing suicide are difficult to acquire, especially means, such as barbiturates, that are not violent and traumatic to administer. If a suicide is “caught” before death has occurred, he will be forcibly restrained and brought back to life. If he suffers severe brain damage from the ordeal, he will be maintained on life support, despite his clear wish to refuse this sort of “life-saving” treatment.

The truth is that no one has a right to suicide, either in Britain, or in the United States. Suicide may not be a crime, but as a practical matter, it is prohibited all the same.

Written by Sister Y

October 5, 2008 at 5:25 am