Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter today for texting messages to her emotionally disturbed boyfriend, Conrad Roy, convincing him to commit suicide. The facts of the case are very disturbing. Carter knew that Roy had been trying to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning…..sitting in his pickup truck as exhaust fumes filled the inside. When Carter learned that Roy had backed out of the suicide attempt, she repeatedly texted him with increasingly harsh messages, seemingly ridiculing him for not following through with the suicide. “You just have to do it,” she texted Roy. “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!”
Roy then killed himself by getting back in the exhaust-filled truck.
Carter listened as Roy suffocated to death; failed to alert authorities; and did not tell Roy’s parents, even after she knew that Roy was dead. Roy’s body was discovered in his truck the next day; Carter had nothing to do with the discovery.
The Massachusetts state court judge who found Carter guilty was not persuaded by her defenses that she herself was delusional, and that she had been intoxicated by the anti-depressants that had been prescribed to her.
The judge’s decision will forever be important not only because it came in a case where a young man tragically lost his life, but also for legal reasons, specifically:
·Suicide is generally regarded as a person’s voluntary act, for which another is not responsible. If Roy-who was an 18 year old adult-was able to decide whether to take his own life, how can Carter be held responsible for his death, despite her shocking behavior?
·Encouraging suicide is generally not a crime. Carter has Constitutional free speech rights to express her views, including in texts and other social media, and so how can she be criminally punished for exercising those rights, even if the things she said are reprehensible?
Legally, I believe the judge’s decision was correct. It appears that Roy was not in control of his decision-making. In fact, he had voluntarily halted his first suicide attempt, before Carter got involved, and then her encouragement apparently caused him to resume. Or at least that’s what the judge evidently believed, and he was the one in the courtroom listening to witnesses and taking in the other evidence. Also, there are circumstances where we, as a society, conclude that a person’s suicide was not a volitional act, and rather that someone or something else was responsible. One example would be where the suicide was caused my mis-prescribed, or over-prescribed, medication. Another example would be where the person causing the suicide had a special relationship of trust with the victim, such as a parent or teacher. Carter obviously was in a position of trust with Roy, as he dutifully followed her encouragement to take his own life.
As for Carter’s free speech rights: those rights are among the most cherished we have, which means that, just because Carter’s speech (texting) was offensive, does not mean that it’s criminal. However, not all speech is Constitutionally-protected. The law’s most famous example of this is if someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, knowing that there is no fire, and then the resulting stampede causes someone to lose his life. Free speech is not a defense for the person who yelled “Fire!”, because, under the law, your speech cannot recklessly endanger life. There is no Constitutional protection for that. I believe that, under the facts of this case, Carter was like the person who yelled “Fire!” in the crowded theater, because she knew her words were going to cause Roy to kill himself, and in fact, that was what she evidently intended.
But maybe above all else, this case will endure as a bracing reminder to all of us of the power of social media, particularly among close friends. Words from a trusted friend can have an extraordinary power….either to heal or to hurt. That means, for all of us, that our use of social media must be guided by a recognition of the power it gives us. Had Michelle Carter showed real love and concern for Conrad Roy, and encouraged him to find help, Roy night still be alive today.