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Grieving Father Sues Suicide Web Site

Aired July 1, 2003 - 19:16   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR: Well, it was hard enough for a man named Rick Townsend to learn that his daughter, the girl who had a history of depression and learning disabilities, had killed herself. It was even harder to understand that she got instructions for how to do it on a web site.
In February of 2001, 20-year-old Julie Veteto hanged herself. The web site on her computer, which is no longer online, was one of several pro-suicide sites with detailed information on how to commit suicide by hanging.

Now Rick Townsend is suing the site, which he blames in part for her death. The site is no longer there. He joins us from Orlando, Florida.

Mark Colucci, the attorney for Julie's estate is in Cleveland, Ohio. He joins us, as well.

Rick, thank you very much for being with us. I know this has got to be just extraordinarily difficult for you. Obviously, dealing not only with the death of your daughter, but then to find out that this site was on her computer when she was found.

What -- how upset were you? What went through your mind?

RICK TOWNSEND, JULIE VETETO'S FATHER: Well, I don't know. There's no worse experience for a parent than learning that their child has died. Obviously, all of the circumstances around her death were extraordinarily difficult. That was one of several things that were terrible.

COOPER: Does it make any sense -- I lost a brother to suicide, as well, so I think I understand just a little bit of what you're going through. But, I mean, to find out that there are these web sites out there. Did you know about these sites beforehand and what did you learn about them?

TOWNSEND: Yes. Well, I knew that they existed beforehand. I had never actually looked at one prior to my daughter's death, but I did know that they were out there. When I looked at them, I was really taken aback by what I found.

COOPER: Do you think that -- I mean, I know Julie had been depressed over the years on and off and had some learning disabilities. There are some, you know, I guess if this thing goes to court they'll say well, you know she maybe had these tendencies before. It wasn't this web site that killed her. TOWNSEND: Yes. She did have those tendencies, and so do millions of other people in our country. The question is, what happens with those tendencies?

What we want is for people to receive the support, the help that they need. What we don't need are web sites that -- that encourage, disinhibit, take away the fear that might go with trying to kill yourself. That increases the likelihood of a person following through. We don't want that. I don't want that.

COOPER: I want to bring in Mark here, Rick, if I could.

Mark, obviously when you take this to court, the people who support these sites are going to say, "Look, this is, you know, freedom of speech, First Amendment rights.

How do you argue against that?

MARK COLUCCI, ESTATE'S ATTORNEY: Well, you know, there's a big misconception about freedom of speech. Just a brief history.

It goes back to the British government passing laws not allowing the populace to talk about social issues and governmental issues. But you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. You can't provoke somebody with speech.

We're talking about here these web sites, which were -- is a shocking subculture. They have no redeeming value, much like when you analyze the pornography cases. Each community looks at that. There's no redeeming value except to encourage somebody to kill themselves.

So I encourage all the county prosecutors -- and I'm very interested in becoming one myself -- to prosecute these people behind the web sites. Because they cannot -- they actually are assisting in suicides and that's a crime in most states. It's a crime in Arkansas. It's a crime in Ohio. And I admire Rick for pursuing is.

COOPER: And Rick, what is it, finally, what is it you want? Obviously -- what are you looking for in this suit?

TOWNSEND: I want it to be impossible for those sites to stay online. I want -- I believe in freedom of speech, but I believe in responsibility, as well. And I think that we have to demand responsibility from people who have put this stuff out there.

COOPER: Rick Townsend, appreciate you joining us tonight. I'm very sorry for the death of your daughter and appreciate you coming on to talk about these sites. And Mark Colucci, as well.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you very much.

COLUCCI: Thank you.

COOPER: The Hemlock Society has long been in favor of suicides, saying it should be an option for people suffering from painful issues. The society says its members support choice and dignity at the end of life.

But what do they think about these pro-suicide web sites? Paul Spiers, chairman of the Hemlock Society, joins us now from Boston.

Paul, thanks for being with us.

I just want to read to you one - a note on one of these sites that we found. We're going to put it on the screen. It says, "Suicide is hard work, and should not be undertaken lightly. It's easy to do it badly, or make rookie mistakes. As with many things, the best results are achieved by thorough research and careful preparation."

That's from the so-called Church of Euthanasia. What do you think about these sites?

DR. PAUL SPIERS, CHAIRMAN, HEMLOCK SOCIETY: We absolutely disapprove of this kind of information. And Hemlock, as an organization, is an advocacy organization whose mission is education and seeking legal alternatives for people in the terminal phases of life.

So, in fact, we promote suicide prevention as an organization and so we would completely disapprove of this kind of information.

COOPER: I mean, you're basically advocating suicide for people, the terminally ill, later stages of life. The people we're talking about, like this man's daughter Julie, 21 years old, suffering depression, what is the danger of having these sites out here?

SPIERS: Well, I think the danger is self-evident from what this terrible tragedy that's happened.

But I would just correct you that we don't advocate suicide for people at the end of life. What we advocate is end of life choices and better legal alternatives for people, such as even hospice and other kinds of better care for people as they face the end of their life.

So we never promote or advocate suicide to our members or to anyone who turns to us.

COOPER: All right. Paul Spiers, appreciate you joining us and giving us the perspective from the Hemlock Society. Thanks very much.

SPIERS: Thank you.

COOPER: I should just point out, CNN did contact the operator of the web site seen in the segment and asked them whether they had any comment and they did not.


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