There is a deeply troubling case out of Massachusetts where prosecutors have charged Michelle Carter, 18, with the death of Conrad Roy, 18. What is different about the case is that there is no dispute that Roy killed himself. Carter is being charged for text messages encouraging Roy to go through with the suicide. If true, Carter played a despicable role in this death but the question is whether it should be treated as a crime when it was Roy who made the decision and took the action to take his own life. I have previously written how such cases should be handled by civil litigation as a general rule.
The suicide occurred last July after Roy drove his truck to a K-Mart in Fairhaven with a gas generator. Police say that he got out of the truck and texted Carter to say that he was not sure that he wanted to do it. Carter texted back with “Get back in.” Roy did and died.
After the death, Carter posted messages on social media saying how she missed Conrad and, in September, she organized “Homers for Conrad,” a fundraiser to raise awareness about suicide. One tweet read “I can’t believe today already marks 4 months without you. I love you and miss you always Conrad…”
I find the alleged actions of Carter to be disgusting and deeply troubling. However, I fail to see the line between speech and criminal conduct. Indeed, there is no action here but speech. What is the difference between what she did and thousands of others advocating suicide on the Internet or people calling for others to jump off bridges or ledges. She certainly knew Conrad but that does not necessarily change the legal equation. If she can be charged with manslaughter, where do we draw the line in cases of speech. It would allow prosecutors to pick and choose who is viewed as responsible for the actions of others. The standard of charging someone for being a “strong influence” is dangerously vague and could sweep far into protected speech.
Roy graduated high school a month before his suicide. Carter graduates high school in June.