Can you go to jail for encouraging a suicide?

Crime, NakedLaw, News, Opinion

Update: On June 14, 2017, Judge Lawrence Moniz of the Bristol County (MA) juvenile court, found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for “wanton and reckless conduct” in sending text messages ordering her obviously conflicted boyfriend to complete his suicide. The verdict is expected to be appealed.

Massachusetts teen Michelle Carter has been ordered to stand trial for actively encouraging her boyfriend, via text messages and a phone call, to carry out his wish to commit suicide. Since the young man’s 2014 death, Carter has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, but is she really only guilty of being—judging by the available evidence—a terrible person?

Assisted suicide by text messaging?

Roy was in his truck full of carbon monoxide fumes, texting with Carter and even once speaking with her on the phone. The messages Roy received from his 17-year-old girlfriend were not pleas for him to stop what he was doing, but rather encouragement to “get back in” the truck after he got out upon feeling a wave of doubt over his plans to take his life. Carter also wrote, “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!” And in another message: “You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”

The pair, who lived in towns about 50 miles apart in Massachusetts, met each other during family vacations in Florida a few years earlier. They had not seen each other in person in over a year when Roy committed suicide, and their relationship was mostly one of text messages and emails. While it could be argued that perhaps Carter’s comments were her attempt at reverse psychology to stop her boyfriend from harming himself, the 18-year-old Roy nevertheless succeeded in killing himself in 2014, on the day of the text message exchange. In July 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a grand jury has probable cause to indict Carter for her role in the suicide.

When the law steps in

Text messaging is a useful tool, but the messages can easily be misinterpreted when you can’t gauge someone’s tone, level of sarcasm, or humor. Still, in the case of Carter and her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, the communications they exchanged were dark no matter how you look at it. When life and death come into question, it’s hard not to assume that the messages from both parties were completely serious. And if that was the case, many say prosecuting Carter is entirely appropriate.

“When individuals and families lose the power to protect human lives, other systems like the judicial system must be called to task. We cannot allow human vulnerabilities to be exploited by other human beings. This is especially true in the realm of intimate partnerships and families,” says therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer. “I support our legal system in its decision to prosecute this young woman. In so doing, we protect those who suffer from emotional and physical vulnerabilities from iniquitous forces.”

“While traditionally courts have shied away from ascribing criminal culpability to defendants in situations where a person takes his or her own life unilaterally, as we get more advanced in the understanding of depression and mental illness and how a person coping with mental health challenges would react to encouragement, courts are expanding the reckless or negligent definitions to allow for criminal prosecutions in cases like this,” says Teresa DiNardi, partner at Ruane Attorneys in Connecticut.

The court’s argument

While Carter’s attorney is claiming that the texts she sent were free speech and she is protected by the First Amendment, the Massachusetts court’s decision stated that Carter engaged in a “systematic campaign of coercion.” Carter’s goading Roy on and instructing him to get back in his truck when he became frightened of what he was doing were a “direct, causal link” to his death, according to the court.

“We conclude that there was probable cause to show that the coercive quality of the defendant’s verbal conduct overwhelmed whatever willpower the 18-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,” wrote Justice Robert Cordy in the court’s unanimous ruling. The text messages that Carter and Roy exchanged were publicly released and offer evidence that Carter seemingly encouraged her boyfriend to take his own life and shamed him when he had second thoughts.

Carter’s lawyer, Joseph Cataldo, is placing the blame on Roy alone, claiming that Roy was depressed and had tried to commit suicide in the past. Carter’s lawyer also cites the absence of any Massachusetts law ruling against encouraging or assisting suicide, claiming the unfairness of a manslaughter charge. Cataldo noted that the court’s ruling did not include a comment on Carter’s level of guilt or innocence, but that the court only found enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

Cataldo seems to believe that Carter will come out unscathed: “At trial, it’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher standard, and I’m confident that ultimately, after trial, Michelle Carter will be acquitted.” Time will tell.

Image of Michelle Carter at trial; courtesy of