My criminal law prof – who was certifiable – loved to throw out crazy scenarios and then ask “do we have a crime?” I was waiting to hear those words after reading this story:
A 24-year-old man is accused of helping his 20-year-old housemate kill himself because the older man had his hand on the gun but failed to take it, the Union sheriff said today.
Bryan Bernard Ramsey was booked Tuesday on a charge of criminal assistance to Tijwan D. Hendricks’ suicide and on a charge of obstruction of justice because he hid the gun afterward, Sheriff Bill Buckley said.
Hendricks reportedly had been talking for weeks about killing himself, the sheriff said. On Monday night, Hendricks put the barrel of a pistol into his mouth in front of Ramsey and a female friend of Hendricks’, Juama Tremel Palmer, 25.
Hendricks repeatedly asked Ramsey to pull the trigger and shoot him, Buckley said.
“Ramsey put his hand on the weapon … and did not do anything. Our victim allegedly cocked the weapon and put it in his mouth. (Hendricks) said, ‘Now do it,’” Buckley said. “Ramsey had ample opportunity to take the weapon and did not.”
Because at the time they arrived at the scene, the cops still had to figure out what happened, the obstruction charge has merit. The gun was evidence. Hiding it interfered with the investigation.
I’m not so sure about the criminal assistance charge.
The situation would be very different if Ramsey had pulled the trigger. In that case, the charge would be murder. Even if Hendricks asked him to, and even if Ramsey did so out of compassion for his friend, that would still be murder. Motive is not an element of the crime. It would be the intentional killing of a human being, even if it was done for a good reason.
What happened, though, is that Ramsey failed to prevent Hendricks from killing himself. I don’t think that is a crime.
First, how reasonable would it have been to try to do anything other than what Hendricks did? The sheriff admits Hendricks already had the gun in his own mouth. In that situation, could Ramsey have possibly pulled the gun away? Or would doing so have caused it to go off in the struggle? Perhaps leaving it alone and letting Ramsey settle himself was the best option.
Second, even if Ramsey could have easily removed the gun, in this country the general rule is that no one is under any legal obligation to prevent harm to another person. There’s exceptions. Parents have a special duty to their kids. If you created the danger, you have to help prevent harm. But I don’t see anything here that would take this case out from the general rule. This sounds like a harsh rule, but think about the alternative. What if the neighbors had hears shouting before the shooting, would they be criminally liable too? What about people who knew Hendricks was depressed? How about them? As bad as it sounds, I just don’t think it is a crime to watch someone kill themselves.
I could be wrong. Law school was a long time ago, and practicing law feels like it was in another life. But this just sounds like a tragic situation in which the criminal law does not belong.