In our last post, we discussed the case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her boyfriend committed suicide at her urging via text message. She has now been sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, though she is expected to be released after 15 months. Due to the callousness and cruelty demonstrated by her messages, many hailed her conviction as a victory in justice. Others, including many criminal defense attorneys, fear that this case has triggered a slippery slope of personal responsibility and criminal culpability.
Involuntary Manslaughter or Free Speech?
In case you missed it, Carter was 17 years old in 2014 when she encouraged her then-boyfriend to follow through on his plans to commit suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Even as he expressed fear of death and told her he wanted to abandon his plan, she urged him to stick it out. He ultimately died in his car. Carter was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter, which is typically reserved for people whose actions cause death, not their words.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) has argued that Carter’s conviction is a violation of her First Amendment rights. Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts told reporters, “Mr. Roy’s death is an unspeakable tragedy, and our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends; but while Mr. Roy’s death is truly devastating, it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.”
A Cry for New Legislation
Many critics of Carter’s sentencing bring up the relevant point that there are currently no laws on the books stating that encouragement of suicide is illegal. While most can agree that what Carter did was heartless and dangerous, her conviction pushes the bounds of involuntary manslaughter laws and liability to an unprecedented degree. There are now calls for new laws that would criminalize suicide assistance while leaving existing manslaughter and murder laws in their current form.
Professor of law and criminal justice at the Northeastern University School of Law Daniel Medwed stated, “This idea that words can kill is a very controversial one because the criminal law typically punishes physical action.” He and others worry about a wild-west scenario where anyone can be prosecuted for the things they say, whether they physically commit a crime or not.