§ 22.08. AIDING SUICIDE. (a) A person commits an offense if, with intent to promote or assist the commission of suicide by another, he aids or attempts to aid the other to commit or attempt to commit suicide.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor unless the actor’s conduct causes suicide or attempted suicide that results in serious bodily injury, in which event the offense is a state jail felony.
“Causing suicide” (or causing attempted suicide that results in SBI) is an element of the felony offense. It’s something that the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to increase the punishment range. The state also has to plead it in order to charge a defendant with a felony.
If the state pleads that a person has, with intent to assist the commission of suicide by another, aided the other to commit suicide, but does not allege that the person’s conduct caused the suciide, the state has charged that person with a class C misdemeanor—a fine-only offense, the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
There hasn’t been a published opinion on an aiding-suicide case in the thirty-eight years that the statute has been on the books, which doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any prosecutions, but means that there haven’t been many.
Which brings us to this case. When I read about the British man jailed for helping his wife end her own life, I thought, “This guy is getting screwed. He’s already lost his wife, and now the state has stuck him in a jail cell for it. Why don’t they mind their own damn business?” (Rhetorical question. They’re getting paid to stick their noses in other people’s business.)
Then I read the formal criminal complaint filed by the state and discovered that not only was the state prosecuting the man for something that really shouldn’t be a crime, but it was doing so incompetently.
The complaint charges a class C misdemeanor: if the state proves everything it alleges in the criminal complaint, the maximum penalty is a $500 fine. The state filed this misdemeanor charge in the 351st District Court. District courts have no original jurisdiction over misdemeanor charges (except in rare circumstances that don’t even arguably apply here).
In sum, the state of Texas has filed the case in a court that has no jurisdiction.
Yet the accused has been sitting in jail since 30 June 2012, with his next court date set 30 July 2012. He can’t make bail, so he might sit in jail for thirty days—or longer—on a charge with a maximum $500 fine filed in the wrong court. Is it better or worse that the prosecutors who have filed charges against you aren’t capable of reading the damn statute? The state bungles, and the mind boggles.
Can the state recover from its blunder? If it repleads, alleging that the defendant’s conduct caused suicide (the element that vests the district court with jurisdiction), can it prove it? I know nothing about the facts, but I don’t need to know the facts of this case to know that the causes of suicide are unknowable. Even the sheriff’s department has told the Chronicle that there is no suggestion that the defendant was actively involved in causing his wife’s death.
There is no happy ending in this tragic case. Nobody wins. The best to be hoped for is the minimization of further damage. The DA’s Office made the wrong call in accepting felony charges, but it can still do the right thing by letting this one go.
Place your bets.