Ban on suicide tested

Arundel teen charged with helping girlfriend kill herself in Oct.

`Because he needs help'

March 01, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In the first test of the Maryland law banning assisted suicide, Anne Arundel County police brought juvenile charges yesterday against a Crofton teen-ager they say helped his 15-year-old girlfriend kill herself in what officials believe was a suicide pact.

The boy, who turned 16 shortly after Jennifer Garvey shot herself, was charged as a juvenile with assisting a suicide, possession of a handgun and reckless endangerment in her death.

Legislators, who had Dr. Jack Kevorkian in mind a year ago when they banned assisted suicide, were stunned in January when they learned that prosecutors might use the assisted-suicide law in this case. For similar reasons, legal experts saw the move as highly unusual.

County authorities said yesterday that the charges were brought, at least in part, in hopes that they would result in appropriate treatment for the accused youth.

"Some people could say, `He's been through enough. Why charge him?' " said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. The answer, he said, is, "Because he needs help.

"What would happen if he goes out and kills himself or hurts someone else? Then people will say, `Well, you had an opportunity to do something to get him help and prevent this.'"

The Arundel High School 11th-grader died Oct. 18 of a single gunshot to the head in a dark, cavernlike storm sewer, a popular hangout for Crofton-area teens, who call it "the underworld."

Investigators say the boyfriend supplied his stepfather's handgun, brought from home.

The assisted-suicide law bars anyone from providing the "physical means" for another person's suicide.

The teen-ager was taken from his mother's Crofton townhouse yesterday morning to the Western District police station, where he was fingerprinted and photographed.

James D. McCarthy Jr., a juvenile master for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, ordered him detained under a suicide watch at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County until the state's Crownsville Hospital Center has a bed available in its adolescent unit and can evaluate his mental health.

The handcuffed youth seemed despondent when he appeared before McCarthy. Asked by the juvenile master whether he agreed with the recommendation of a prosecutor and the Department of Juvenile Justice for detaining him, the youth replied, "I don't care, sir."

Officials said they feared that the teen -- whose history of suicide attempts, depression, violence, illegal drug use and three psychiatric hospital admissions was reported in court yesterday -- would try to kill himself.

Court officials described him as suffering from major depression and bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders, and said he was under psychiatric and psychological care.

Jennifer's mother, Cheryl Sylce of Glen Burnie, had no comment on the charges, saying only that "this is a stressful time" for her family.

Because the boy is a juvenile, officials are not releasing his name, and The Sun is not publishing it.

His mother sat beside him at the hearing and declined to comment afterward.

Charles Pettebone, a Juvenile Justice caseworker, told McCarthy yesterday that the youth had assaulted his mother. The assault, which took place in December, was handled out of court in January, in part with recommendations for treatment that he was already getting.

"He is also allegedly beyond his mother's control. He leaves the house and comes back when he feels like it," Pettebone said of the youth, who is no longer attending school.

He has come to the attention of juvenile authorities four other times. Those involved alcohol and drug violations that Juvenile Justice handled out of court, and an allegation of malicious destruction that was dismissed.

Assistant State's Attorney Michael O. Bergeson offered little new information about the case, which prosecutors think would be the first prosecution in the state under a ban on assisted suicides that took effect Oct. 1. Maryland is the 38th state to explicitly criminalize assisted suicide.

"There has never been a case like this," said Faye Girsch, president of Hemlock Society USA, which advocates allowing people to choose to end their lives. She said she hopes the case will be handled "in a merciful way."

Weathersbee said he does not expect to try to shift the charges to adult court. For an adult, assisting a suicide is punishable by up to a year in jail and conviction on all of the charges could add up to eight years behind bars.

The juvenile court could supervise the youth until he is 21, ordering him into a juvenile facility or releasing him with conditions and ordering treatment.

"I hope this will ensure that he gets the treatment he needs," said county police Detective Tom Torrence, who investigated the case.

Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington, said, "It's not a good way to get him help." The juvenile justice system is not a substitute for psychiatric care, he said, adding, "He's not going to be the only kid in Cheltenham who is disturbed."

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