Teenager Who Urged Friend to Kill Himself Is Guilty of Manslaughter

TAUNTON, Mass. — A young woman who sent a barrage of text messages to another teenager urging him to kill himself was found guilty Friday of involuntary manslaughter in a case that many legal experts had expected to result in an acquittal.

The verdict, handed down by a judge in a nonjury trial, was a rare legal finding that, essentially, a person’s words alone can directly cause someone else’s suicide.

The judge, Lawrence Moniz, of Bristol County Juvenile Court in southeastern Massachusetts, said the conduct of the woman, Michelle Carter, toward Conrad Roy III was not only immoral but illegal. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

This is a travesty of justice and must be overturned by a higher court. This girl was mean, callous, and heartless but she is not responsible for her friend’s suicide. He alone placed the garden hose from the tail pipe of his car through a window and chose to sit in the car until he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. [actually, the hose came from a compression pump and not from his tail pipe, but that’s beside the point].

If you see a man on the ledge and you tell him to go ahead and jump, and then he does, you may be a horrible person but you are not guilty of homicide. Words alone are not a criminal act. The only exception is “fighting words” that cause a reasonable person to fear for their immediate safety. It’s likely a misdemeanor assault under relevant statutes. Maybe if you threatened to push him but didn’t and then he jumped, you could be guilty under a misdemeanor assault statute.

There was no evidence that the boyfriend was so mentally impaired and susceptible to suggestion (that she was aware of his condition) so that her words alone would make him would commit suicide. If that were the case, the prosecution might (might!) have had a case under misdemeanor assault statutes.

Instead the judge relied upon the fact that she new he was about to commit suicide and did nothing to stop him. That was not even relevant evidence in a trial for any sort of homicide. Nobody has a legal obligation to become a good samaritan. If you see someone drowning and decide to do nothing, not even to call for help, you may be a hard-hearted sonofabitch but you are not guilty of a crime.

The story at the New York Times suggests that perhaps the judge was trying to tell the legislature to enact a law against what this girl did. That would make this judge’s decision even worse. It is established law in America that judges cannot make up new crimes. Most if not all states have a statute which says nothing is a crime unless the act committed is made a crime by a statute in this state.

At common law judges made up new crimes all the time. That was how the criminal law advanced in those days. But not anymore, not in America. Only the legislative body in the state has the power to say what is a crime.  America is a country in which everything that is not expressly prohibited is permitted. In some countries, such as certain Arab regimes, everything that is not expressly permitted is prohibited.

This conviction must be overturned post haste.

Ms. Carter’s lawyers tried to throw out the indictment, but the state’s highest court allowed the case to proceed, citing two cases from the 1960s in which people were convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the self-inflicted deaths of other people. One case involved people who took part in a game of Russian roulette; another involved a man who helped his wife load a gun and offered tips on its use.

I bet any intelligent person can see that the two cases cited above by the appellate court are significantly different from Ms. Carter’s case. Taking part in Russian roulette exactly falls within the parameters of most manslaughter statutes. One player goes to the hospital or the morgue and the other players go to prison. The second case involved one person providing the means of death to another person. Any man on the street can see how these cases are not even close to Ms. Carter’s case. Seems odd that a judge can’t. These cases are clearly covered by the statutory definition of voluntary manslaughter.  Ms. Carter’s isn’t.

If the legal system has anything at all to do with this incident it can only be by way of a civil suit for damages.

Postscript: A long time ago a friend of mine died of a heart attack after his wife of over 30 years divorced him. She had carried on an affair with his adult son by his first wife during their marriage. She was much younger than he and had begun to berate him for what she referred to as his “geezer stuff.” He had made it possible for her to enjoy a lifestyle for over 30 years that she likely would never have attained otherwise. After he died I and others blamed her for his untimely death. We even told ourselves and each other that she had killed him. None of us ever thought for a moment that she had actually killed him.  We were just angry at her for the way she treated him and betrayed him. We did believe that she had caused him a great deal of anxiety that may have contributed to his heart attack. We never for a second believed the criminal law had anything to do with it.