Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter: Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction for Encouraging Suicide Over Text and Phone

Digest Commentary First Amendment

Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, No. 15YO0001NE (Mass. Juv. Ct. June 16, 2017) verdict hosted by NYTimes.com

In Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, No. 15YO0001NE (Mass. Juv. Ct. June 16, 2017) verdict hosted by NYTimes.com, Judge Moniz of the Bristol County Juvenile Court convicted the 20-year-old defendant of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her then-boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to commit suicide by communicating with him over text messages and one crucial phone call. This Juvenile Court decision comes after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause in this case, saying that words could be a sufficient basis for finding causation based on the logic that a person could be “virtually present.”

Roy and Carter, who had built their relationship online and through text messages, both had histories of depression, and Roy had attempted suicide in the past. During prior text message exchanges discussing suicide, Carter had pushed Roy to get help. On the day of the suicide, however, Carter encouraged Roy to end his life, allegedly because she wanted to respect his choice. In a phone call shortly before Roy’s death, Carter allegedly stopped him from exiting the vehicle in which he had prepared to commit suicide. Massachusetts does not currently have a law making encouraging a suicide criminal.

 While prosecution placed significant emphasis on the text messages between the Carter and Roy during the trial, focusing particularly on the fact that their relationship was so tied to online communication, the judge rested his conclusion on a phone call they exchanged shortly before Roy’s suicide. Judge Moniz, delivering the verdict in the jury-waived trial, said that Roy “[broke] the chain of causation by exiting the vehicle” and that Carter importantly “did not issue one simple instruction: Get out of the truck.” He said that the causal relationship between Carter’s words and Roy’s actions was sufficiently close to merit the involuntary manslaughter conviction. Ms. Carter and her counsel plan to appeal the decision.

 In examining what precedent there might be, several analysts have pointed to United States v. Drew, 259 F.R.D. 449 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 28, 2009) hosted by Stanford.edu, a case in which a mother posed as a 16-year old boy on MySpace and encouraged a 13-year old girl, whom she believed to be bullying her daughter, to commit suicide. Lori Drew was convicted of violating the Computer Fraud Abuse Act due to her violations of MySpace’s terms of service, but was not convicted of manslaughter. The difference in 2017 is that an individual being present only virtually is far more common and ubiquitous, leading to Judge Moniz’s ruling that physical presence is not necessary to establish actus reus and causation in Commonwealth v. Carter.

 Many, including the ACLU, are concerned that the conviction represents an extension of the criminal law to speech rather than action. The statement published by the ACLU of Massachusetts says that this case was decided on the theory that “[Carter] literally killed Mr. Roy with her words” and claims that the decision “violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.” Mary Anne Franks, the director of the Cyber Rights Initiative, said, “Hard cases sometimes make bad law. That’s true here.” The concern is that a criminal conviction of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging someone to commit suicide could lead to criminalization of speech more generally, such as simply telling someone, encouraging someone, or even suggesting to someone that they should commit a criminal act. A specific version of that concern, cited by ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal, is that this “conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones.”

 Wired, among others, claims the case is not fundamentally about technology: it is about an application of existing criminal law doctrines to novel situations created by our new technology-centric reality. As Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University Law School, observed: “The story is news because it involves technology, but people have been using words to commit crimes as long as there have been crimes.” Danielle Citron, in her book called Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, identified 21 crimes that have to do explicitly with speech (including threats, extortion, and conspiracy). Those areas of speech are not protected by the First Amendment. That being said, using words to commit manslaughter seems to be without real precedent.

 

 Daniel Etcovitch is a rising 3L at Harvard Law School and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology.