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2 teens' deaths help prompt proposed state law changes

2 teens' deaths help prompt proposed state law changes

February 13th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

In this photo from December 2015, Johanna Olsen-Henry holds up the last portrait of her family taken before her brother, Tobias (Toby), and mother, Jean, were killed in a wreck caused by an intoxicated driver in November 2007.

Photo by Julie Smith

Missouri lawmakers are asked this year to require people convicted of driving while intoxicated to attend a victims' impact panel.

And another proposed law would modify existing law, so someone who knowingly incites another to commit suicide could be charged with manslaughter.

To help encourage their support for the proposed bills, members of the state Senate's Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony Monday about the deaths of two Missouri teens, nine years apart.

Victim impact panels

Toby Olsen, 17, and his mother, Jean Olsen, 45, died Nov. 4, 2007, when their van was hit on a Sunday morning by a drunk driver on Route C in Russellville, as the family was heading home from church.

Johanna Olsen Henry and her father, Eric Olsen, survived that crash.

For several years, Henry has backed "Toby's Law," named for her brother, and its requirement that those convicted of DWI attend victim impact panels.

"I do speak at victim impact panels, and I provide pictures of the car wreck that were never released to the media, because they are incredibly gory," Henry told senators Monday afternoon. "Over the 10 years of being a part of these victim impact panels, I've seen a lot offenders who come back, who have quit drinking."

Drunk driving incidents have "increased by 8.4 percent" in Missouri, Henry said. "There are so many things that, while driving, we can prevent, and this is one that we can, definitely, prevent."

She said the panels are informational, "non-confrontational, so it's not judging (people) or anything like that."

The goal is to change people's hearts, Henry said.

And she testified some have stopped her while she's out with her family, and told her, "You changed my life."

The proposal passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Eric Greitens because it was part of a bill covering too many subjects, which violates the Missouri Constitution.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, sponsors the bill this year, and told colleagues: "Any fees related to the participation in the (required) program would be paid by the participant — that's usually about $25.

"There are numerous locations around the state that provide these programs, and the longest distance that would have to be traveled would be slightly over an hour, driving time."

Involuntary manslaughter after a suicide

Kenneth Suttner, also 17, killed himself in December 2016 at his home in Glasgow.

He was overweight and spoke with a speech impediment, which made him a target for bullies at Glasgow High School.

However, Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler said Monday, "Kenny Suttner was the poster child for turning the other cheek.

"He was bullied constantly through school, but he turned the other cheek and kept going — until he reached his workplace, where it finally got to him and was more than he could take."

After Suttner's suicide, Flaspohler held a coroner's inquest and the jurors determined the Glasgow School District and one of Suttner's managers at the Dairy Queen had committed manslaughter through the bullying they caused or allowed to happen.

However, April Walker, assigned as the special prosecutor in the case, told lawmakers after a year of trying to apply the law to the case facts, "I have come to the conclusion that our involuntary manslaughter (statute) is, most definitely, in no shape to handle this type of situation."

Had Suttner died in 2017 — after Missouri's revised criminal code had gone into effect Jan. 1 — instead of in 2016, Walker said she might have been able to file a charge and convince a jury the bullying at school and work had led to Suttner's death.

"We are at an age where, the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says we are at a 40-time year high of suicides by teenagers — particularly female teenagers, from the age of 15-19."

She said the CDC's data shows "a substantial increase" in the number of teen suicides, from 2010-15.

"That's also during a time period when smart phones, social media access, the immediacy (and) the anonymous nature in which you can attack an individual has, also, been on the rise," Walker testified.

She reported she still has some charges pending against the Dairy Queen manager, and the Missouri Human Rights Commission has been asked to investigate the case for a possible civil lawsuit.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, noted the Suttner case isn't the only one showing why the law change is needed.

She pointed to a Massachusetts case where Michelle Carter, then 17, used text messages and phone calls to urge her boyfriend to commit suicide.

Nasheed said Massachusetts' law also "was vague, (and) their definition of manslaughter was vague," making it more difficult for the judge to try the case.

Wilson said one difference between the Massachusetts case and Suttner's death were Carter's messages, showing she "clearly participated," including telling her boyfriend to "get back in the car — you need to do it now" when he tried to back out.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on either of the proposals Monday.