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  • Writer's pictureTim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Tragic deaths inspire Kansas House to embrace bill criminalizing intentional incitement of suicide

Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, decided as chairwoman of the House rules committee that an amendment designed to encourage safe storage of firearms wasn’t germane to a bill seeking to hold accountable people who bullied vulnerable individuals into dying or trying to die by suicide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


By Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector


TOPEKA — Jennifer Dennis saw the UPS package sent to her Lenexa residence and asked her son what had been ordered from a company in Texas.


Her 23-year-old son, William, told her it was school supplies. In reality, it contained a bottle of sodium nitrite. About 10 days later, William drove to a Lenexa motel, mixed the sodium nitrite with water, drank it and died. Dennis said more sodium nitrite was delivered to her home the week of William’s funeral in January 2022. Only later did Dennis learn her son had logged onto an internet chat site that offered instructions on how to use sodium nitrite to die by suicide.


Dennis shared her personal story while testifying in support for House Bill 2676, a bill making it a crime in Kansas to encourage suicide through oral, written or visual communication.


“William had an undiagnosed mental illness,” Dennis said. “Instead of coming to his parents for help, he went to (the internet chat site) where he was brainwashed by sociopaths. These sociopaths did not love William. They were not professionals, such as doctors or psychologists. The sociopaths … have one goal — as much death by suicide as possible.”


Wichita Reps. Brenda Landwehr and Nick Hoheisel, both Republicans, combined interests in addressing internet promotors of suicide and individuals who actively encouraged others to kill themselves. Their thoughts and the insights of various attorneys were woven into the bill endorsed by the House Judiciary Committee.


It would establish a felony crime of engaging in communication that substantially influenced a person’s decision or the method used to die, or attempt to die, by suicide. To qualify for prosecution, the influencer must have had knowledge the other person expressed a desire to kill himself or herself. The acts of encouraging suicide would have to be made at a time proximate to the other person’s suicidal attempt or completion of the act.


Rep. Dan Osman, an Overland Park Democrat and an attorney, said Wednesday during House consideration of the bill that the legislation did a good job sorting through divergent opinions. He acknowledged enactment of the bill could invite challenges on First Amendment grounds.


“I’m not going to stand up here and say this is going to clarify everything or that there may not be constitutional challenges,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”


Democratic Rep. Jo Ella Hoye of Lenexa unsuccessfully sought to amend a House bill that would create a crime against encouraging suicide. Her amendment, which was ruled not germane, would have made it a crime for someone to not safely secure a firearm that was used by a person under 18 to attempt or die by suicide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


The firearm scuffle

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat who won a House seat in 2020 after serving as a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, proposed an amendment to the bill aimed at deterring suicide. In addition to educating the public about the 988 suicide and crisis hotline, Hoye said the Kansas House could take action against the most frequent method of under-18 suicide in Kansas. She said 75 minors in Kansas committed suicide with a firearm from 2017 to 2021, which was more than all other methods combined.


She proposed an amendment establishing the crime of knowingly leaving an unsecured firearm in the presence of a minor who had communicated suicidal thoughts and acted upon that instinct with the readily available firearm. She argued the amendment was eligible for insertion into HB 2676 because both the bill and amendment spoke to methods of suicide and both fell within the same section of state statute.


“I know every single one of us want to do more to prevent suicide in our state. It is a crisis,” Hoye said.


Hoheisel, the House Republican seeking to criminally charge people who bullied others into trying to kill themselves, used a procedural maneuver to challenge whether Hoye’s amendment was germane. The motion was considered by the House Rules Committee, which convened in private behind the House floor to debate the procedural question.


Generally, such decisions were reached with five minutes or so. This time, however, the GOP-led rules committee struggled for 25 minutes to find a plausible reason to declare the amendment nongermane.


Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House rules committee, emerged with an explanation that was immediately challenged by Hoye as an incorrect reading of the rules of order.


“We had very robust discussion and we looked at it from many different angles to determine if this amendment is germane to the bill,” Humphries said.

 

‘Follow the rules’

Humphries, who also chairs the judiciary committee that produced the suicide bill, said she drew a distinction between the bill’s focus on the crime of actively communicating support for a suicide and the amendment’s passive conduct regarding supervision of a firearm that might make it easier for someone to die by suicide. In terms of subject matter, she contended, the bill and amendment were on different levels.


She offered a secondary objection to the amendment’s germaneness based on her view it too aggressively expanded “scope” of the bill by precisely defining methods of encouraging suicide.


Hoye objected to the rules committee chair’s explanation, and called on the full House to affirm or reject the committee’s conclusion. She said Humphries was improperly abandoning the House’s tradition of measuring germaneness, which amounted to identifying at least two “points of contact” between a bill and an amendment. Hoye said her amendment met that standard.


Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat on the House rules committee, agreed with Hoye on the two-points argument. She also drew upon the 2020 edition of Mason’s Manual of legislative procedure, which established amendments were germane if relevant and logically tied to the base bill.


“The amendment is required only to be relevant to the same subject,” Sawyer Clayton said. “It may entirely change the effect or be in conflict with the spirit of the original motion or proposal and still be germane to the subject. This is germane. Follow the rules.”


In the final vote on the matter, the GOP-dominated House voted 79-36 to sustain Humphries’ definition of what was germane.


Hoye said the unsuccessful effort to advance her amendment at least served as an opportunity to publicly discuss the danger of carelessly handling firearms.


“I hope it does remind adults to properly secure your guns at home,” she said. “It is important to practice responsible firearm ownership.”

 

First Amendment

Proponents and opponents of the House bill indicated the legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, was likely to be challenged on constitutional grounds.


Emily Brandt, an assistant appellate defender and representative of the Board of Indigent Defense’s legislative committee, cautioned House members to be wary of First Amendment implications of legislation that criminalized speech.


In terms of assisted suicide law, the Minnesota Supreme Court held statutory prohibitions against advising and encouraging another to die by suicide violated the First Amendment because the language of that law wasn’t narrowly drawn to serve a compelling state interest.


She said the Minnesota court held “speech in support of suicide, however distasteful, is an expression of a viewpoint on a matter of public concern and is entitled to special protection.”


In terms of the Kansas legislation, Brandt said, there was a risk physicians and other health care or hospice professionals could be prosecuted for informing patients of their right to refuse medical care.


Bob Stuart, executive officer of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said the agency supported legislation in Kansas to meaningfully tackle the trend of “reprehensible online behavior encouraging and sometimes facilitating suicide.” He argued free speech rights could be outweighed by the state’s interest in carefully restricting the ability of someone to control, exert undue influence or coerce another person to turn to suicide.

 

The story of Max

Jill Janes of Woodland, Texas, said she arrived at the Wichita apartment of her son, 21-year-old Max Coleman, on April 14, 2023, to find him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She performed CPR until first responders arrived. Her son was declared dead at the scene.


“The trauma of that day will forever haunt me,” Janes said told the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “My life will forever be divided by this date. There is no pain like that of losing a child, especially from a death that simply didn’t have to be.”


She said Coleman suffered from depression magnified by the recent breakup with a girlfriend. Before his death, she said Coleman began receiving text messages from a number he didn’t recognize. The person on the other end, apparently a friend of his ex-girlfriend, told Coleman that his old girlfriend was dating someone else, Janes said. She said her son responded by text that he was struggling with suicidal thoughts and to leave him alone.


Instead, the person replied: “Go for it! Do it! Nobody cares about you! Do it! No one cares!” Janes said those were the last words communicated to her son.


“I believe my son would still be here today if he hadn’t encountered this type of urging and encouragement in his vulnerable condition,” Janes said. “These messages — that was all it took to snip the impossibly thin thread he was hanging by emotionally and mentally.”


She said time had come for Kansas lawmakers to hold accountable bullies who preyed on vulnerable people considering suicide.


“There is another Max out there who needs this law,” Janes said. “I believe this law will be similar to drunk driving laws that are preventative with looming consequences that have the power to alter behavior.”


On Thursday, without debate, the House approved the bill on a vote of 119-1.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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