In Virginia, suicide is a crime
In 2011, nearly 1,100 Virginians took their own lives.
And technically, under Virginia law, every one of them was committing a crime.
Sharon Webster was shocked to hear that last year after her daughter Lauren, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, killed herself.
“I was appalled. I was just appalled,” said Webster, of Arlington. “It’s just a horrible, antiquated type of thing that really just makes us feel even worse. I’ve lost half of my life, losing my daughter.”
Webster has started an online petition to change Virginia’s law, and has gotten the interest of a few state lawmakers.
The criminality of suicide in Virginia is not spelled out in the state code. Instead, it’s rooted in the web of English common law and case law that defines a lot of Virginia’s law. Nor does it have a lot of practical impact, except perhaps in rare court cases.
But, says Webster, calling suicide a crime just adds to the stigma faced by those with mental illness and the pain felt by those whose loved one dies by suicide.
English common law, developed over centuries, was adopted by America’s early founders as they set up their own governments. And while many states have ditched it, and Virginia has repealed parts of it, the common law still is referred to in the state’s code as being in effect.
English common law considered suicide as homicide and said the heirs of a person who committed suicide could not inherit that person’s property. The property of a suicide could be forfeited to the crown.
Virginia eliminated such punishments for suicide years ago.
Yet the state has never gone further in spelling out that the old English common-law treatment of suicide no longer applies. And case law from just 20 years ago, still in effect, refers to suicide as an “immoral act” and raises the question of whether people who die by suicide are of “sound mind.”
David Drachsler, a former labor lawyer and a member of the ACLU of Virginia board of directors, has been looking into the issue, prompted by Webster’s experience.
‘AN IMMORAL ACT’
Drachsler pointed to the 1992 case, Wackwitz v. Roy, that came to the Virginia Supreme Court.
In that case, a woman whose husband, Bryon Wackwitz, had died by suicide, wanted to sue her husband’s psychiatrist for negligence in treatment.
But a lower court dismissed the case, agreeing with the defendants that Wackwitz’ suicide was “an immoral and illegal act” and that the wife couldn’t base a legal action for wrongful death based upon that “immoral act.”
The state Supreme Court reversed that ruling, based upon a provision in the common law that said for someone to be guilty of “the common law crime of suicide,” that person must be of sound mind. Wackwitz’s wife had argued he was not of sound mind, so his suicide shouldn’t be a bar to her court case. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the lower court.
Still, Drachsler said, the case didn’t change the common law’s consideration of suicide as a crime, didn’t alter the definition of it as an “immoral act” and also raises the question in any other suicide-related court proceedings of whether the person was of sound mind.
SUICIDES ON THE RISE
Webster’s efforts to change Virginia law come at a time when suicide rates are rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that in 2009, U.S. deaths by suicide surpassed those from crashes and that between 1999 and 2010, national suicide rates “increased significantly.”
In Virginia, 2011—the most recent year for which data are available—showed a 13-year high in suicide rates, according to an annual report released by the state examiner’s office this May.
In 2011, the state rate was 12.6 suicides per 100,000 people, and the number of reported suicides in Virginia showed slight increases every year since 2003.
Between 1999 and 2011, more than 11,000 people died by suicide in Virginia.
But while reasons for the increasing rates might seem obvious—a bad economy, people out of work, an increase in the number of military and veteran suicides —it isn’t that easy to pinpoint.
“For most people, suicide’s not a single issue it’s a lot of stressors combined,” said Marc Leslie, Virginia’s violent death reporting system coordinator.
Leslie’s reports look at specific subgroups—military suicides, deaths of incarcerated people, and so on.
His data do show an increase in the percentage of people who died by suicide who were unemployed in 2011—23.5 percent, up from 15.5 percent in 2007.
That’s not to say job loss is why suicide rates are climbing, he said. “It’s basically impossible to say well, ‘this is it, this is the smoking gun, this is why the rate has gone up,’” Leslie said.
While he hasn’t completed 2012’s report yet, Leslie said there seems to have been a slight decrease in the suicide rate that year.
“These trends are pretty stable over time,” he said. “It just doesn’t change that much.”
THE PROBLEM OF STIGMA
Mira Signer, director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that while the common law’s criminalization of suicide adds insult to injury for surviving family members, the broader problem is overcoming barriers to treatment and negative perceptions of mental illness.
“What’s really concerning, in general, is that people who are suicidal and their families often have a very tough time getting help, sometimes because services aren’t available or because the family doesn’t know how to access services, or they’re given the runaround, or because mental health crises often carry such a steep stigma that the family doesn’t want to reach out for help, yet they lack the knowledge and skills to deal with it on their own,” Signer said. “The more concrete danger of stigma, rather than the common law, is the general taboo of mental illness and mental health crises, and the barriers that stigma creates with regards to getting help in the midst of a crisis.”
Still, Webster feels the law is something she can help change, and she hopes that bringing attention to the criminalization of suicide in the law will help raise awareness about mental health issues.
‘A MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE’
Del. Rob Krupicka, D–Alexandria, is looking into the issue and hopes to introduce legislation in the 2014 session to clarify that suicide is not a criminal act.
“One of the biggest issues with suicide being treated as a crime, it kind of takes away from the fact that suicide is a mental health issue,” Krupicka said. “Even if symbolically we are still discussing suicide as a criminal event, it makes it very difficult to have a conversation about it being a mental health issue that requires proper prevention services in order to keep it from happening.”
Krupicka said he’s talked to parents, like Webster, whose children have died by suicide.
“It just feels like another blow, to deal with the whole issue and then be told that legally what their child did was against the law, as opposed to being told that what happened was a result of mental illness,” Krupicka said. “It’s parents fighting to raise awareness about suicide who see this designation of an obstacle to building the kind of awareness they’d like there to be.”
That’s why Webster headlined her Change.org petition, which had 200 signatures as of last week, as “Change the Law/Change the Perception.”
“I think that’s really going to make a difference,” she said. “It is crazy, because these kids are not criminals, and I think elevating it and letting people know it is on the books is good for changing the stigma.”
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
SUICIDES IN VIRGINIA
2011 suicide numbers and rate per 100,000 population
Fredericksburg: 4 suicides, rate of 15.6
Stafford: 10, rate of 7.6
Spotsylvania: 12, rate of 9.7
Caroline: 4, rate of 13.9
King George: 3, rate of 12.4
Culpeper: 7, rate of 14.7
Orange: 4, rate of 11.8
Louisa: 7, rate of 21
Westmoreland: 3, rate of 17.1