Michelle Carter Conviction: Can Words Kill?

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On July 13, 2014, Conrad Roy was found dead in a Kmart parking lot. Roy had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. However, after further investigation police found thousands of messages between Roy and his girlfriend, Michelle Carter, discussing suicide plans. In a text days before Roy’s suicide Carter wrote, “I still don’t think you want to do this so you’ll have to prove me wrong…Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself. I don’t know. There’s lots of ways.” Not only were they discussing suicide, but Carter was goading Roy into killing himself which prosecutors focused on.

In 2015 she was indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The case has stretched out until this year. On June 5th the trial began, and Carter was found guilty of these charges a little over a week later. It was later revealed that Carter was on the phone with Roy as he died yet she made no calls to the police or his family. She didn’t tell anyone about Roy’s death and at one point during the call told him to, “F—– get back in [the truck]” when he seemed reluctant to go through with it. Judge Moniz reasoned that while Carter was not directly involved in killing Roy, because she did not call for help and did not tell Roy to get out the truck, that qualified as involuntary manslaughter. Judge Moniz later sentenced Carter to two and a half years in prison.

While what Carter did was despicable and horrific, there are no laws in Massachusetts that criminalize encouraging someone to commit suicide. Therefore, because Michelle Carter did not technically break state laws she should not have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter as this case sets a new precedent that words can kill without any legal basis for it. In addition, because there was no legal basis for the verdict and the presence of mental health issues and medications at the time of Roy’s suicide, getting mental help and being institutionalized should have been considered as a sentence as opposed to incarceration.

Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law has expressed concern over this conviction saying, “This idea that words can kill is a very controversial one because the criminal law typically punishes physical action.” The judge’s conviction shows that words can kill even though there are no specific laws or statutes that criminalize it. Also, because one of the key reasons the judge delivered the guilty verdict was because of Carter not issuing a, “simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck” it seems as though inaction is being criminalized as well. This ruling pushes the boundaries of criminal laws by punishing the effects words and inaction can have on someone.

According to a Boston Globe article, people from Carter’s hometown were asked about their opinions on her sentencing and whether they felt it was just. The writer, Travis Anderson, interviewed a wide variety of people from kids who went to school with Carter to older neighbors and residents. All had varying opinions on the matter. Though none of these people were experts in law, the article shows how this case has caused quite a controversy among the public as well as legal experts.

Some have argued that while Massachusetts doesn’t have a specific law that criminalizes encouraging someone to commit suicide, the common law (the law that judges of the state have developed over time) of homicide in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognizes Carter’s actions as a crime.

The example of George Bowen’s case in 1816 was likened to the case. Bowen was serving time in jail for larceny, and he convinced the prisoner in the adjacent cell to kill himself the day before his execution. Bowen was placed on trial for murder, and the jury was instructed to return a guilty verdict, “if they were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowen’s words ‘procure[d] the death’ of his prison neighbor.” The jury acquitted Bowen, but the principle remained and has now been brought up again and convicted in Carter’s case.

However, as mentioned before there are no official laws that criminalize what Carter did. This isn’t to excuse her from her horrendous actions, but she simply shouldn’t have been convicted based on laws that don’t exist or laws that were based on ‘principles’ from over two hundred years ago.

Another argument that has been used for and against Carter’s case is the First Amendment and the free speech clause. Despite the horrendous texts from Carter to Roy, “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection.” It may or may not be a flaw in our country’s grand design, but nevertheless Carter’s actions weren’t technically illegal.

There are limits to this such as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded area, which can be legally penalized as it is reckless and incites actions that could potentially harm others. Based on this, what Carter did can be punished, but once again Massachusetts’s laws cloud the situation. The speech must also intend to incite, “imminent lawless action” and the state has no laws against encouraging suicide. In addition, suicide is technically an action that is self-inflicting therefore it’s unclear as to what “lawless action” Carter would be punished for.

Despite the unclear laws, Carter has been sentenced though some have expressed that the sentence was too light. Davin Shapiro, a clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, expressed that he understood why many think Carter’s sentencing sounds lenient. He used the case of Justin Doyle, a fifteen-year old who was charged with the murder of his friend and received a thirty year sentence. Doyle had broken into a house with two of his friends, and one of his friends was shot by a man inside. Because of the felony murder rule, Doyle was charged with the murder of his friend instead of the man who shot him. Compared to this case, Carter seems to have got off easy. Even drug dealers can face decades in prison if they unintentionally cause the death of one of their buyers by the drugs they have sold and distributed.

However, Shapiro decides to focus not on the length of incarceration but how incarceration affects people. According to a psychiatrist who testified, Michelle Carter suffers from depression, and incarceration, “often exacerbates mental health disorders, and it will likely worsen hers.” In addition, Shapiro calls into question the effectiveness of incarceration in preventing crime. The incarceration rate in the United States has gone up by 500 percent in the last 40 years. However, despite the increasing rate, it has a minimal effect on crime in our country. Therefore, incarceration is not always effective when considering public safety.

Despite Carter’s encouragement, Roy had had a history of depression and had tried to commit suicide before. Also, Carter had previously dealt with an eating disorder and was taking antidepressants. In cases like Carter’s where mental health issues are present, getting mental help should have been considered in the sentencing as opposed to incarceration especially since Massachusetts’s laws surrounding Carter’s actions were already unclear.

Because of the complex details surrounding Roy’s suicide, the judge’s guilty verdict and sentencing will force the courts to reevaluate certain laws. Medwed has said that Carter shouldn’t have been tried for manslaughter and that, “Massachusetts needs a specific statute that criminalizes encouraging or coercing suicide.” But because it didn’t at the time, the judge has drawn some harsh lines about what is deemed illegal in bullying and harassment cases. This case will force everyone to reevaluate cyberbullying and harassment cases, but this verdict may cause even more confusion in future situations.

David Rossman, a Professor of Law at Boston University wrote in his article that, “now the genie is out of the bottle. Who else might find the engine of the criminal justice system bearing down on him or her because of words less morally bankrupt than Michelle Carter’s?” He expresses his concern that now that someone has been legally tried and convicted because their words have proven to be life-threatening, this case can start a slippery slope that confuses who else can be tried. Will doctors or family members advising patients or loved ones about their end-of-life choices have to face charges if those patients die as a result? Granted, the case of doctor and patient end-of-life decision and two teens with mental health issues are very different. However, Rossman’s point is still valid because of the fact that Massachusetts has no specific laws on these types of cases where ‘words can kill’ in the case of suicide or assisted suicide. Because the verdict was made on Judge Moniz’s own judgement rather than the actual law, it’s reasonable to look at other situations where we take this new precedent that ‘words can kill’ and apply it to other situations.
Overall, it’s clear that Massachusetts needs to reevaluate and start creating specific laws pertaining to the kind of situation Roy and Carter were in. However, because no such laws were present at the time of Roy’s suicide, Carter’s verdict was incorrect. Even if what she did was despicable and morally wrong, legally she wasn’t guilty. There are states that do have laws that criminalize encouraging someone to commit suicide such as California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. This case has complicated opinions on morality and legality, but if Massachusetts can follow in the footsteps of these states mentioned and create or add to laws about assisted suicide and manslaughter more clarity can be brought to similar situations. In addition, while the states already mentioned have taken strides to clarify laws concerning suicide, the list is very short compared to how many states have laws that are just as unclear as seen in Massachusetts. With the rise of technology and cyberbullying becoming a bigger issue for teens today, these laws can help tremendously is protecting and defending victims of bullying.

 

 

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2 Comments to “Michelle Carter Conviction: Can Words Kill?”

  1. This case was a very interesting one. When I first read about Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, I thought she should be automatically convicted. Without looking at further details it seemed like a no-brainer Michelle was in the wrong. You brought to light for me the reasons she should be considered at least mentally ill. I did not realize there were states who do have laws against encouraging someone to commit suicide. I hope this case will be an eye opener to other states where cyberbullying results in suicide.

  2. I do agree that words can kill, and this is a perfect example of that. Michelle told her boyfriend to kill himself via text, and with the amount of pressure he’s been getting, ended up committing suicide all due to a singe text message. The saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is not true because words can kill and can drive a person to the brink of insanity–it depends on the degree of the words. You mentioned how Carter suffered with mental health issues (ie: depression) and eating disorders, this could be a strong reason for why she drove her boyfriend to kill himself. Perhaps it was her own personal life–whether she was unhappy in the past–that made her hurt someone she loved, though I believe that if she got help, none of this would’ve occurred.

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