The Cultural Defense

In Connecticut last April, with five friends from a Buddhist youth group assisting him, Binh Gia Pham doused himself with gasoline, flicked a lighter and exploded into flames. The 43-year-old immigrant was protesting attempts by the Vietnamese government to suppress Buddhism.

Pham's friends had recorded his death with video cameras, then promptly notified Connecticut police. "It was clear," says Sergeant Scott O'Mara, "that they did not think they had done anything wrong." The state saw things differently. All five were charged with second-degree manslaughter, for aiding a suicide, an offense that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Fortunately for...

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