Suicide-by-Text Is a Disturbing New Form of Domestic Violence

Prosecutors dealing with a real problem risk painting women as having almost supernatural powers with which to manipulate.
Left image of Alexander Urtula and Inyoung You courtesy Suffolk County DA's Office. Right photo of Michelle Carter on trial in 2017 by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Last week, for the second time in recent Massachusetts history, a young woman was charged with manslaughter for texting her boyfriend messages encouraging him to kill himself.

Alexander Urtula, 22, and Inyoung You, 21, were both students at Boston College last May when, on graduation day morning, Urtula leaped off a parking garage to his death.

In a press conference, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins announced her office was indicting You for involuntary manslaughter for her alleged role in Urtula's suicide. Though Rollins claimed You had been physically abusive prior to Urtula's death, was tracking his location on her cellphone, and was present at the garage when he died, the bulk of the evidence appeared to consist of 75,000 text messages the couple exchanged in the last two months of Urtula’s life.


Among other things, Rollins said, You wrote that Urtula should "go kill himself," "go die," and that his family and friends would be better off without him.

In a statement, the prosecutor's office argued these messages would serve to "clearly display the power dynamic in the relationship, wherein Ms. You made demands and threats with the understanding that she had complete and total control over Mr. Urtula both mentally and emotionally." They added that You knew about Urtula’s “spiraling depression” and took advantage of him.

"Domestic violence does not discriminate," Rollins said.

We've seen this kind of case before. In June 2017, Michelle Carter was convicted of manslaughter after she sent texts to her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy, telling him to kill himself. She was 17 at the time of the crime. The trial was the subject of an HBO documentary, an episode of 20/20, British tabloids, and got coverage in more or less every news outlet in the country, including this website. Attorneys are currently fighting to appeal Carter's conviction to the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that the conviction violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Conversations with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and experts suggest cases like these resonate in part because the criminal justice system—and society at large—can't make sense of men experiencing domestic violence at the hands of women. When forced to grapple with that reality, prosecutors risk painting the women in question as having almost supernatural powers with which they manipulate victims.


"That's the part of this that is interesting to me, is the notion of causation: the notion that these women were somehow putting a spell on the men so that the men were doing what they would otherwise not have done," said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and Harvard Law lecturer who is on Carter's appellate team. "That's antithetical to most gender stereotypes, though it certainly is a caricature: the witch caricature.”

In the Carter case at least, the witch caricature felt apt. I was one of dozens of journalists who flocked to the neo-gothic town of Taunton, Massachusetts, to cover the trial. We literally trampled over ourselves as the increasingly frail defendant crept into the courthouse in pearl white pumps and paisley prints. The saga had the makings of a modern day fairy tale, and not the Disney kind—more like a violent old wives' story. I couldn't help but wonder if we were drawn to this case solely for its implications on freedom of speech, or for reasons that were more primal. At the time, I suggested prosecutors cast Carter as a social media siren.

When asked about the role gender stereotypes might have in a case like this, Rollins' press secretary, Matthew Brelis, pointed to the DA's statement and press conference, "Those are the public statements we're making at this time," he said. The office of Bristol County DA Thomas Quinn, which convicted Carter, declined to comment.


If nothing else, these cases are serving to expose gaps in the way Americans understand what domestic abuse looks like, experts said.

"Because women's violence is rare, it’s confusing to us," said Kate Auerhahn, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at Temple University.

In a 2007 study in which she compared women and men convicted of intimate and non-intimate partner homicide, Auerhahn wrote that the "inability to conceive of women's violence" extends not only from judges to juries, but is also notably lacking in sociology and criminology research literature.

A 2016 analysis co-authored by Emily Douglas, a professor and head of the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, found that while women are more likely to be injured (or killed) in domestic violence disputes, men and women inflict violence on their intimate partners at roughly the same rate.

But while men may be as likely as women to be violently abused by their intimate partners, they are "less likely to think of themselves as being the victim of a crime," Douglas said.

Gender in these suicide-by-text cases also seems to be emphasized by way of expectation. In both cases, women have arguably been charged for manslaughter not just because of what they did, but because of what they didn’t do: care for their mentally-ill boyfriends.

In the Carter case, the 20-year-old defendant declined her right to a jury trial and was instead convicted by Judge Lawrence Moniz, who took her to task not just for her text messages, but for failing to help Roy when she knew he was carrying out the plan. "When one's actions create life-threatening risk, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk," said Moniz, who specifically admonished Carter for not calling Roy's mother and sister for help. "The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter."


Would a man be convicted in the same situation? It's impossible to say because, so far, no man appears to have been charged with manslaughter for encouraging a woman via text message to kill herself. Moniz based his ruling on two cases in which men were charged for creating dangerous environments and failing to help people who died, though the men in those cases were not convicted.

Throughout history, women have been blamed for the violent actions of men, especially in the context of rape. But Auerhahn said she found that in the modern era, women convicted of murdering their partners were generally sentenced less severely than their male counterparts—
"which is appropriate given the circumstances that surround those kinds of homicides," she continued, explaining that when women kill their partners, they often do so out of self-defense.

Still, Douglas noted that "about half of partner violence is bi-directional. Which also doesn't fit our dominant narrative that there is a good person in each relationship and there is a bad person in each relationship."

Meanwhile, it's unclear if You's case will ever go to trial.

You is currently in her native South Korea. There is no word on whether she will voluntarily return to Boston to be tried, and if she doesn't, whether the U.S. has the capacity to extradite her. Because she has not been arraigned, the court hasn't released the actual indictment against her to the media, just a press statement. The DA hasn't identified You's attorney, if she has one.

While the case has stirred a mini-media sensation in New England, Rollins' press statement hinted that, like Carter, she may have been struggling with her own mental health issues.

One means that Rollins claimed You used to control and manipulate Urtula: threats of her own self-harm.

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