18-year-old from Houston commits suicide on cruise ship
In a terrifying example of the apparent psychological impact of hate crime violence on victims, a Texas teenager who testified before Congress in April in support of the Matthew Shepard Act committed suicide Sunday, July 1, when he leaped from the upper deck of a cruise ship into the Gulf of Mexico.
David Ritcheson, 18, of suburban Houston, was pronounced dead after being pulled aboard the Ecstasy, a 70,000-ton Carnival Cruise Lines ship en route to Cozumel, Mexico, from Galveston.
As news of the tragedy spread, gay rights groups in Texas and Washington issued statements mourning Ritcheson’s death and praising him for speaking out against hate crime violence. Representatives of Equality Texas and the Human Rights Campaign noted Ritcheson’s contribution to helping influence the U.S. House of Representatives to approve the law, which is now in the U.S. Senate and under attack by conservative groups because it includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bill is opposed by Texas’ Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, who claim current hate crime legislation omitting sexual orientation and gender identity is sufficient.
“Sadly, while David Ritcheson survived the physical attacks against him, he was not able to survive the emotional scars they left,” said Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, in a statement.
Hate crime experts, such as researchers for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, note that hate crime victims often suffer long-term psychological repercussions after they recover from their physical injuries. The communities to which the victims belong also suffer group psychological pain, such as fear, according to the researchers.
In his testimony before Congress, Ritcheson noted that when he awakened in a hospital several weeks after he was attacked he felt great fear and uncertainty.
“Most of all, I felt inexplicable humiliation,” Ritcheson said. “Not only did I have to face my peers and my family, I had to face the fact that I had been targeted for violence in a brutal crime because of my ethnicity.”
Ritcheson, a Mexican-American, was beaten unconscious and sodomized with a plastic pole by two men shouting “White Power!” during a drug-fueled party in April 2006. He was hospitalized for more than three months and endured as many as 30 painful surgeries in the months following the attack.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, noted in a statement that Ritcheson’s death was “tragically altered” by the attack.
“By sharing his testimony before congress, David’s courage helped the U.S. House of Representatives pass a hate crimes bill that will help fight these horrific acts of violence,” Solmonese said.
A man at Ritcheson’s home, who identified himself as Ritcheson’s father, confirmed the death. He declined to comment further, saying the family would issue a statement later.
Ritcheson, a small and quiet youth, once lamented being known as “that kid” who survived the party attack. He rarely discussed his feelings and declined to get counseling, according to Mike Trent, the prosecutor who handled Ritcheson’s case. But Trent said Ritcheson always seemed positive and upbeat about his recovery.
“He certainly wanted to see justice done in the case and wanted his attackers punished, but I thought that considering everything that had happened to him he had come through things remarkably well,” Trent said.
He said Ritcheson had used drugs before the attack but realized that played a role in his assault and promised to quit.
“It’s just very tragic because I thought he had turned a corner and was trying his best to make something positive out of what happened to him,” Trent said. “He thought that he could handle everything on his own.”
Two men were convicted of aggravated sexual assault in the attack. David Henry Tuck, then 18, was sentenced to life in prison. Keith Robert Turner, then 17, was sentenced to 90 years in prison. Both must serve at least 30 years before being eligible for parole.
Ritcheson, Tuck, Turner and two other teens were partying at a home in suburban Houston during the April 2006 party, drinking and taking cocaine and Xanax. According to testimony, the attack was triggered by Ritcheson’s drunken pass at one of the other teens’ 12-year-old sister.
Although he remembered nothing of the four-hour attack, Ritcheson testified about it during congressional hearings in April on a hate-crimes bill. That bill passed the House of Representatives and is now pending in a Senate committee.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who met with Ritcheson and his family before his testimony, said she hopes to have the bill formally named “David’s Bill” in honor of Ritcheson.
“I could not have been more moved by his commitment to getting things right,” Jackson Lee said Monday. “He was able to dig deep over all of the pain and all the humiliation and try to be of help to someone else.”
The Anti-Defamation League, one of several civil rights groups that organized Ritcheson’s testimony, released a statement Monday saying:
“Our hearts go out to his family and friends, who already have endured so much pain as the result of the brutal and hateful attack on David in 2006.
“We pray the same strength, courage and dignity they displayed after David’s attack will help them make it through this very difficult time, and we send our condolences.”
A spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines said several witnesses saw Ritcheson jump from an upper deck of the ship Sunday morning. Officials aboard the Ecstasy notified the U.S. Coast Guard before recovering Ritcheson’s body and bringing it back aboard.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 6, 2007.