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Web suicide watchers tough to prosecute

Legal experts say that while Florida laws make it possible to charge people, prosecutors would struggle to convict.

A teenager lay dying in bed after swallowing a lethal does of narcotics while his suicide attempt is broadcasted to the Web. A group of concerned viewers attempted to intervene by alerting the authorities. Others however prodded the teen to take his own life with messages such as "do it."

Authorities in Pembroke Pines, Fla., are now trying to determine whether any of the people who encouraged the teen to kill himself violated Florida law, according to several reports. The incident began last week when the 19-year-old man Webcasted himself on Justin.TV and posted a message at a Web site dedicated to body building that he intended to commit suicide. About 12 hours later, police found his body in his Hollywood, Fla., home.

A. Randall Haas, a criminal lawyer in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., believes that state law gives prosecutors plenty of room to charge someone with manslaughter in cases where someone allegedly "assists" a person with suicide or a death occurs because of someone's negligence. Florida criminal statute 782.07 says: "The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of manslaughter."

"It all comes down to how much is contributed to the victim being able to do the act," Haas told CNET News on Monday. "If you tell me you're depressed and want to kill yourself and I hand you a gun, I could be found criminally liable. If someone is on the edge and you help give him a push then you may have to answer for that. What has to be decided is whether communicating with someone over the Internet rises to the level necessary for someone to be considered culpable."

Some of the other questions that have yet to be answered are whether Florida officials can hold someone living in Los Angeles or the United Kingdom accountable for violating one of their laws. Also, should prosecutors bring charges, how will they prove to a jury that the people who encouraged the victim to kill himself knew it was real suicide attempt?

They can't, says Guy Womack, attorney with Houston-based Guy Womack and Associates. Womack is an expert at federal criminal law and recently tried a criminal case in Florida.

Womack said that the Internet is full of hoaxes and spoofs and game playing is common. He said all anyone charged for negligence has to say to defend themselves is that they had no way to determine the suicide attempt was legitimate.

"For prosecutors to prove their case, they would have to prove that that those watching knew what the (victim) was going to do," Womack said. "And there was no way they could have. They didn't realize what they were seeing. They couldn't reasonably foresee that he was going to kill himself."

Haas gave the same assessment of what a defense would be but said that authorities may feel compelled in a case like this not to let such callous behavior go unpunished.

"I'd hate to be prosecuting the case," Haas said, "but I got to tell you something else, I'd hate to defend it. A person that is in such fragile condition, those words could have put the person over the edge."