The family of a Chandler teenager who died by suicide in 2019 is hoping state lawmakers will pass legislation that allows law enforcement to prosecute individuals who encourage vulnerable minors to take their own lives.
The State House unanimously passed Chandler Rep. Jeff Weninger’s House Bill 2459, which expands the crime of manslaughter to include individuals who advise others how to commit suicide.
The impetus behind Weninger’s bill was the tragic death of Adrio Romine, who at age 16 was Chandler High School’s Class of 2018 valedictorian and graduated with a 4.9 GPA.
On the surface, Romine appeared to have a bright future ahead of him with a scholarship to Arizona State University, where he was a pre-med student.
But Romine’s parents say the 17-year-old had been privately struggling with depression and had begun to secretly express his despair on Reddit, the online chat forum that’s home to 430 million users.
One user allegedly instructed Romine in how to take his life over the course of several days and was still chatting with the teenager hours before his death.
Romine died in the same manner explained to him by the Reddit user a few days before Mother’s Day in 2019.
Paolla Jordan, Romine’s mother, said she has preserved nearly 300 screenshots of her son’s disturbing dialogue with the individual and believes they prove her son’s death was the result of the Reddit user’s influence.
“This was a predator preying on my son and it will happen again,” she told the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 3 as she urged lawmakers to give police the ability to go after adults who coax children into taking their own lives.
Every agency claims their hands are tied in these situations, Jordan said, noting they claim to have no legal authority to investigate online manipulators who intend to harm others.
“Our family will not get justice for Adrio,” Jordan added. “As Adrio’s parents we need to make an effort to do something for future generations to come.”
After Romine’s death, his family contacted law enforcement agencies in Arizona and California – where the Reddit user is believed to have lived – and attempted to get them to file criminal charges.
Kelly Jordan, the teenager’s stepfather, said the authorities in those two states wanted to open an investigation but couldn’t because there was no statute that could be applied to Romine’s case.
“Even though everyone is willing, nobody has the ability to prosecute any of these cases,” he said. “And there’s nothing to try and stop anybody from doing this because there’s no law against it.”
Manslaughter charges have traditionally been used in Arizona to prosecute killers who commit a homicide without premeditation.
Fatal car accidents or domestic fights that turned deadly have often been the types of cases that end in a manslaughter conviction.
The law presently applies to defendants who supply the physical means for someone to die by suicide but does not account for someone who emotionally coerces another person to commit such an act.
Manslaughter is currently classified as a Class 2 felony, meaning anyone found guilty under the legislation’s proposed amendments could be sentenced to several years in prison.
Weninger, who attempted to get a similar bill passed last year, said he was motivated to introduce HB 2459 after reviewing some of the alarming messages sent to Romine on the Reddit thread.
Romine was getting messages detailing the most effective angles for pointing a gun at his head, the lawmaker noted.
“I just think that’s reprehensible and I want to make sure no parent has to go through this in the future,” Weninger said.
The legislation must still pass through the State Senate before it could be signed by Gov. Doug Ducey.
The legislation failed to pass last year after the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted the possibility of most bills getting to the House or Senate floors for a final vote.
But several lawmakers signaled their support for Weninger’s bill early on and have been wishing to see it advance through the Legislature.
State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, voted to move the bill through the Judiciary Committee last session despite some concerns she had about the legislation’s vague language.
It is unclear how prosecutors can prove a defendant’s intent in cases like these, Pawlik said, yet it is clear parents need more support in patrolling the online activities of vulnerable children.
“As a parent, I can attest that it would be impossible to monitor all of your child’s interactions on social media,” Pawlik said last year after voting in favor of Weninger’s bill.
Pawlik and several other Chandler lawmakers have been introducing and supporting several pieces of legislation in recent years that attempt to curb the startling rate of teen suicides reported across the East Valley.
Nearly 60 students from various East Valley schools have died by suicide over the last four years, prompting parents and teenagers to demand for more resources from their local school districts to address students’ social-emotional needs.
Lawmakers have been trying to address the troubling trend by presenting bills that would provide more school counselors, require mental health instruction in schools and allow pupils to miss school for a mental health problem.
Yet those other bills don’t approach the issue from a criminal justice standpoint quite like HB 2459, which attempts to prevent suicides by criminalizing the behavior of those who knew the deceased was contemplating suicide and urged them to follow through with it.
The legislation is similar to the criminal case of Michelle Carter, a young Massachusetts woman who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her boyfriend died by suicide in 2014.
Carter encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself through several phone calls and text messages exchanged in the days leading up to his death.
Though Carter’s attorneys argued the state had no authority to prosecute, the courts ruled the defendant’s messages showed she had criminal intent to harm her boyfriend.
Carter’s case set a precedent that some legal experts felt opened the door for prosecutors to violate an individual’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
But supporters of HB 2459 don’t think Arizona is encroaching upon the constitutional liberties of its residents by passing the legislation.
Shane Watson, a suicide prevention specialist, said the legislation is not trying to suppress someone’s controversial opinion on suicide, it’s trying to stop someone who intends to do harm.
“It’s about protecting our most vulnerable and ensuring our future,” he said.
Watson, a spokesman for Not My Kid, a nonprofit specializing in mental health resources, said Romine’s case illustrates the gaps that exist in society where a young person can secretly be influenced by a stranger online without anyone else knowing.
“This was not a matter of someone failing to help or flippantly saying ‘kill yourself’,” Watson added. “This is a grown adult who knowingly, intentionally, continuously coached this young man to do this.”
Romine’s family plans to get other states to introduce legislation similar to HB 2459 and hope to eventually get the laws changed nationwide.
In the meantime, the family will continue operating the Laloboy Foundation, which aims to provide counseling services for children and internet safety workshops for parents.