Red Bluff woman’s suicide prompts proposed new law
Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2009
Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2009
RED BLUFF - Federal legislation crafted in response to a 19-year-old woman’s suicide after she got instructions on the Internet has her parents hoping it will spur discussion of an often taboo topic at the very least.
“I would be more than happy, overjoyed if this bill was passed into law and that it was never used, (because) it was a deterrent,” said Mike Gonzales, whose daughter’s death is behind House Resolution 853 - also known as the Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2009. U.S. Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, introduced the bill Feb. 9 after a previous version failed in committee.
Promoted as an Internet bill, it imposes criminal penalties for using interstate commerce to teach specific individuals how to kill themselves.
Suzy Gonzales, described as an energetic, witty and accomplished student, won a full-ride scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee. But after she moved from Red Bluff and, unbeknown to her family, began suffering from depression, she turned to online suicide groups.
“They kind of electronically put their arm around the person’s shoulder and say, ‘There, there, we know what you’re going through,’ ” said Mary Gonzales, Suzy’s 56-year-old mother. After brewing a lethal cocktail of potassium cyanide and tap water, her daughter died March 23, 2003, in a Tallahassee motel room.
The Gonzaleses, who say they’ve identified the person responsible, became frustrated when Florida police and lawyers told them they had no recourse but a civil lawsuit, something they couldn’t afford.
In the course of their campaign for HR 853, Mike Gonzales says he’s heard concerns the law would limit free speech, an allegation both he and Herger reject.
“This is the most common misperception,” said Gonzales, 46, a retired firefighter. Once he explains the law applies only to people who directly target individuals they know plan to kill themselves, the critics understand, he said.
“It’s very narrowly tailored to pass constitutional muster,” said Darin Thacker, Herger’s legislative director in Washington, D.C.
And while the bill sounds no free-speech alarms for the executive director of the San Rafael-based California First Amendment Coalition, he sees other flaws.
“I don’t think this really adds anything to make it a crime to assist somebody to commit suicide,” said Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist. State laws already address assisted suicide, Scheer said, and Herger’s bill would not trump those statutes.
“It’s not any more of an Internet bill than most of the millions of federal statutes that are predicated on use of interstate commerce,” Scheer added, noting that communication by text-messaging, telephone, e-mail, letters and other means also is covered.
“This law looks like it was written in 1969,” Scheer said. “There’s absolutely nothing in there that would date it after the invention of the personal computer.”
Calling the law “superfluous,” he said it’s unlikely to pass.
Thacker acknowledged the state laws already on the books, but he said when it comes to people delivering suicide instruction on the Internet, the process frequently crosses state lines.
“Because of that, a federal statute, we believe, is appropriate,” Thacker said.
A person convicted under the bill faces a fine or imprisonment up to five years, and if someone dies as a result, a sentence of life in prison could result.
Meanwhile, the Gonzaleses are forging ahead, and Herger’s public appearance in Red Bluff last month to promote the proposed law buoyed their crusade.
“We thought it went really, really well,” Mary Gonzales said. “Plus it gave us more to talk about on the Web site (www.suzyslaw.com) so people aren’t always reading the same thing. Something new brings it to people’s minds again.”
The challenge now, says her husband, is to spread the word and get more legislators on board to sponsor it. That the bill, now in the House Judiciary Committee, isn’t perfect is of little concern to him.
“If it gets into a serious committee hearing, they can rewrite it to where it is more friendly, palatable to other representatives,” Mike Gonzales said.
And he feels he’s made progress by making people aware that the kind of tragic end met by his daughter is still a danger to others, especially when suicide is not always openly discussed.
“That’s a victory for my part that people start debating it,” he said. “We can’t stop suicide altogether but we could put notice on the predators on the Internet who prey on the vulnerable that they can and will be held accountable.”
The Gonzaleses also are grateful for Herger’s persistence.
“We are so deeply indebted to Congressman Herger for taking up this issue for us,” Mike Gonzales said. “He’s committed to it. To me, that tells real integrity of the person.”
Reporter Janet O’Neill can be reached at 225-8216 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.