Suicide and the law in Virginia

By David A. Drachsler, ACLU of Virginia Board of Directors

Did you know that suicide is a crime in Virginia?  Neither did Sharon Webster, whose daughter Lauren took her own life just a few days before she was to graduate Phi Beta Kappa with honors from the University of Virginia last year.  Lauren was an active and empathetic young woman who joined the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad when she was 18 and vigorously advocated for patients served by the Rescue Squad to make sure they received the best, most appropriate care.

But Lauren suffered from depression, which became more severe last year, and she took her own life apparently by an overdose of prescription medication.  Then, having suffered this unimaginable loss, Sharon Webster learned that Lauren’s act of suicide was considered a crime in Virginia.  How can the Commonwealth add to the pain and stigma of mental illness by labeling someone a criminal whose inner suffering drives them to suicide?

The legal system in Virginia retains elements of what is called English Common Law. The law of homicide included suicide; English law said:

Felonious homicide is … the killing of a human creature … without justification or excuse.  This may be done either by killing one’s self, or another man.

For suicide to be considered a crime, English law also required that “a person who takes his own life ‘must be of years of discretion, and in his senses,’” that is, of sound mind. The penalty for suicide fell on the victim’s family.  English law prohibited the heirs of a person who died by suicide from inheriting his property and his estate could be forfeited to the government.

Although the Virginia General Assembly abolished these penalties for suicide, the fact that in some cases suicide can be considered a crime may still have important results for the families of the person who died by suicide.  For example, the Virginia Supreme Court has held that mental health professionals and hospitals that were treating the person just prior to his suicide may be held liable to the family if their treatment did not meet the standard of care in the community.  But the family is required to prove that the person who died by suicide was of “unsound mind” at the time of the act of suicide.  Other cases in Virginia show that this can often be difficult to prove.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that “Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to-24-year-olds,” and that “Many of the signs and symptoms of suicidal feelings are similar to those of depression.”  It also points out “Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders.”  The Academy urges parents and families to be alert to warning signs of suicide in adolescents.  But “With support from family and appropriate treatment, children and teenagers who are suicidal can heal and return to a more healthy path of development.”
Labeling suicide a crime adds immeasurably to the stigma of the mental illness that causes suicide and may deter mentally ill persons and their families from seeking treatment.  The law of suicide in Virginia is based on centuries old, outdated English law. That must yield to modern scientific knowledge and experience that suicide is caused by treatable mental illness.  It is time for Virginia to abolish the common law crime of suicide as have many other states such as New Jersey, Colorado, and Wisconsin.  The ACLU of Virginia supports legislation in the next session of the General Assembly to do so.

About the Author

David A. Drachsler is a retired U.S. Department of Labor attorney. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the ACLU of Virginia, and is a Volunteer Senior Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.