Woman on Trial for Texting Suicide Encouragement

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 13, 2017

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TeenagerA 20-year-old Massachusetts woman is on trial for sending a text as a teenager, encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide. [See the Update to this story below.]

As the New York Times reports,  Michelle Carter, who was 17 at the time, responded to a text from her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, that he was “ready.”

Carter responded, “When you get back from the beach you’ve gotta do it. You’re ready.”

Another of Carter’s messages read, “Just park your car and sit there and it will take, like, 20 minutes. It’s not a big deal.”

When Roy got out of the truck at one point, Carter called him and ordered him to get back inside, then listened for 20 minutes as Roy “cried in pain, took his last breath, and then died,” according to the prosecutor.

Roy was found dead in his truck after this exchange of messages. The cab was filled with carbon monoxide. His death was considered a suicide.

A Virtual Relationship

Carter and Roy had a mostly virtual relationship. Although they wrote that they loved each other, they apparently rarely met in person.

Prosecutors say that Carter wanted attention from her peers when she talked about her suicidal boyfriend.

Her defense attorney says that she was depressed herself and had attempted suicide. He told that judge that she had, earlier, urged Roy to get help.

The defense attorney said Roy was abused by family members, had an eating disorder, had been treated in a psychiatric hospital, and was suffering side effects from an antidepressant.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Carter is on trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. 

In Massachusetts, Involuntary Manslaughter is defined as:

  1. An unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendants’ wanton or reckless conduct; or
  2. An unlawful killing that resulted during the commission of a dangerous battery by a defendant.

Carter faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

As the Times notes,

The case against Ms. Carter is not without precedent, but such cases are rare and raise unusual challenges for prosecutors: To what extent can one person be responsible — and criminally liable — for the suicide of another person?

Massachusetts, unlike many other states, has no law prohibiting someone from encouraging someone else to commit suicide. 

However, in two cases from the 1960s, the defendants were convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on the self-inflicted deaths of others. One case involved a game of Russian roulette;  another involved a man who helped his wife load a gun and showed her how to use it.

Several states have legalized assisted suicide.

Words Alone

This appears to be the first Massachusetts case in which someone is on trial for using words alone to encourage suicide.

As the Times noted, in a 2008 case a Missouri woman was convicted for computer fraud for creating a fake MySpace account and telling a 13-year-old girl that the world would be better without her. The girl committed suicide, but the woman’s conviction was later thrown out.

Update

Carter waived her right to a jury trial, leaving the verdict in the hands of a judge. The judge found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

The conviction will likely be appealed. An appellate court may be asked to decide whether Carter caused an unlawful killing, given that the decision to commit suicide was ultimately made by Roy, albeit with Carter’s encouragement.

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