Is encouraging someone to commit suicide a crime? The answer is ‘yes' according to one Massachusetts judge. A 17-year old girl who encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself was back in court this week to learn her fate after she was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter this past June.
The case involved Michelle Carter and her 18-year old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. On the night he took his own life, he was texting and talking to Carter. The prosecution argued that Carter's text messages to Roy encouraged the young man to “carry out longtime threats to commit suicide.”
Carter had to stand trial after an earlier appeal failed. The case was argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, with the attorney for Carter contending that “her texts were free speech protected by the First Amendment and didn't cause Roy to kill himself.” The court disagreed, stating in an unanimous opinion that “there was probable cause to show that the coercive quality of the defendant's verbal conduct overwhelmed whatever willpower the eighteen year old victim had to cope with his depression, and that but for the defendant's admonishments, pressure, and instructions, the victim would not have gotten back into the truck and poisoned himself to death.”
Among the reasons that Judge Lawrence Moniz found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter at trial was the fact that Carter never did anything during the time Roy was dying. She didn't call the police or anyone in Roy's family, nor did she tell him to get out the vehicle he was in. USA Today reported that the judge also noted that at one point Roy had apparently gotten out of the car and Carter had told him to “Get back in.” The judge stated that “This court finds that instructing the Mr. Roy to ‘get back in' in the truck constitutes wanton and reckless conduct by Ms. Carter.”
On August 3rd, Carter returned to Judge Moniz's courtroom to learn what her punishment would be. Though Carter was not charged as an adult, she was still facing a potentially lengthy prison term. At the sentencing hearing the defense asked probation, while the prosecution asked for a sentence of seven to twelve years behind bars. The judge stated that “'This court must and has balanced between rehabilitation, the promise that rehabilitation would work and a punishment for the actions that have occurred.'” He then gave Carter a two and a half year jail term but suspended all but 15 months of the sentence. In addition, Carter was given probation for a number of years. Carter won't be reporting directly to jail, however, as the judge “granted a defense motion to stay the sentence, meaning she will remain free pending her appeals in Massachusetts.”
It remains to be seen what the long term impact of the case will be. Northeastern University professor of law and criminal justice, Daniel Medwed, stated that there was a possibility that a new law could be enacted in response to this case that makes it illegal for anyone to “coerce or encourage suicide.” According to CNN, similar laws already exist in “about 40 other states.”
To learn more about this case, check out this blog post.