Increasing the Scope of Legal Responsibility: Can Words Kill?

Written by: Emily Keable

In a rare legal ruling, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter, 20, guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Carter was accused of encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide. Unlike many other states, Massachusetts has no law against encouraging someone to commit suicide. However, the Court still found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Carter now faces up to 20 years in prison.

At the time, the two were teenagers who both struggled with mental illnesses. Earlier on in their relationship, Carter encouraged Roy to seek help for his troubles. Eventually, however, the conversations turned to Carter’s persistent pressuring of Roy to commit suicide. Leading up to Roy’s death, text messages from Carter to Roy show her urging him to act upon his suicidal thoughts.

Beyond a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, this case carries questions of free speech. It is undisputed that Carter’s speech was “morally reprehensible.” Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects speech that is reckless, hateful, and ill-willed. Consequently, it can be argued that the First Amendment protects Carter’s speech, especially as it fails to meet the narrow exception of unprotected speech for literal threats of violence and the incitement of lawless action. ACLU attorney Matthew Segal stated this decision “is saying that what [Carter] did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon was her words.”

Many people are also questioning how this decision expands the very definition of manslaughter, raising questions of what this could mean for the future. One law professor told the New York Times, “Will the next case be a Facebook posting in which someone is encouraged to commit a crime? This puts all the things that you say in the mix of criminal responsibility.”

All in all, one burning question looms: whether this case will be die out as a rare decision, or whether it will set off a path of precedents that expand the boundaries of criminal laws at the expense — or question — of constitutional protections.

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Sources Cited

Katharnie Q. Seelye & Jess Bidgood, Guilty Verdict for Young Woman who Urged Friend to Kill Himself, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017)

Denise Lavoie, What’s Next for Michelle Carter after Conviction in Texting Suicide Trial, Boston (June 19, 2017)

Robby Soave, Michelle Carter Didn’t Kill with a Text, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017)

 

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