Michelle Carter’s 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, had told her that he has been considering suicide. First, she told him to seek counseling, then she changed course, texting him to go through with it. “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!” she wrote. “You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.”
Later, she texted to Roy that his family accept his death, and that he would enjoy the afterlife. “Everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on. They won’t be in depression. I won’t let that happen. They know how sad you are, and they know that you are doing this to be happy and I think they will understand and accept it. They will always carry you in their hearts,” she texted.
“You are my beautiful guardian angel forever and ever. I’ll always smile up at you knowing that you aren’t far away.”
A week before the suicide, encouraging her boyfriend to be more diligent as he searched for the supplies he needed and then going through with his plan in these exchanges:
“Do you have the generator?”
“Not yet LOL,”
“WELL WHEN ARE YOU GETTING IT?”
“You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t”
“I don’t get it either. I don’t know”
“So I guess you aren’t gonna do it then All that for nothing. I’m just confused. Like you were so ready and determined.”
“I am gonna eventually. I really don’t know what I’m waiting for but I have everything lined up”
“No, you’re not, Conrad. Last night was it. You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it, but you never do. It’s always gonna be that way if you don’t take action”
“You better not be bullshitting me and saying you gonna do this and then purposely get caught.”
“No, none of that.”
On July 12, 2014, Conrad drove to a Kmart parking lot and connected his truck to a pump that released carbon monoxide. When he lost his nerve and got out of the truck, his girl friend texted him to “get back in.” She never alerted any authorities to stop the suicide attempt. The young man was found dead in his truck.
Yesterday, Judge Lawrence Moniz, of Bristol County Juvenile Court in southeastern Massachusetts, ruled that Ms. Carter, just seventeen at the time of her crime, committed involuntary manslaughter by urging Roy to kill himself.
Ethically, Carter’s conduct is objectively terrible, and more terrible than many serious crimes. Using one’s influence and persuasion to induce someone to take his own life (or the life of another), resides in the proximity of evil. Hannibal Lector does it. Jim Jones had an entire town do it. One of the reasons this particular method of violence is so diabolical and frightening is that it is difficult to punish. Words don’t kill like weapons kill. No matter what Jim Jones or Michelle Carter said, their victims had free will, at least technically. Whose parents never said, driving the point home, “If he told you to jump out the window, would you do that too?”
Parents, of course, have the kind of influence over their children that might be lethal. I looked for any criminal case where a parent was prosecuted after a child’s suicide for making the child kill himself. The closest I could find was this 2003 case, where the mother of a bullied teen who hung himself was convicted of creating an unhealthy and unsafe home environment. Like the Michelle Carter Case and attempted prosecutions of cyber-bullies for manslaughter, that case was an example of society trying to express its revulsion at unethical conduct that the law doesn’t, shouldn’t and probably can’t make criminal.
40 states criminalize the act of actively assisting people in committing suicide, but suicide induced by pure speech has never been successfully prosecuted. In 2011, William F. Melchert-Dinkel , a Minnesota nurse who encouraged depressed people to live-stream their own hangings, was found guilty of two counts under a Minnesota law that said it was illegal to “advise” or “encourage” suicide. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned that conviction, ruling in 2014, however, that criminalizing “advising” or “encouraging” suicide by mere words violated the First Amendment. Later that year Melchert-Dinkelwas tried again, and convicted of “assisting” a suicide. Massachusetts, however, has no assisted suicide statute. We can stipulate that what Carter did is horrible, but pretending that it violates a law that doesn’t exist, or laws that do exist but require more than murder by remote control, is also unethical. It is an abuse of state power and prosecutorial ethics.
Writes libertarian journalist Robby Soave in the New York Times,
“[S]peech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection. While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger….Judge Moniz’s verdict is a stunning act of defiance against this general principle. By finding Ms. Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter — rather than some lesser misdeed, such as bullying or harassment — the court has dealt a blow to the constitutionally enshrined idea that speech is not, itself, violence.”
It has dealt that blow at the worst possible time, too, when one major party’s base is actively trying to turn the culture against free speech when it “hurts” or offends.
The ACLU has opposed the Carter prosecution, and I would expect, or at least hope for, a unanimous vote overturning the conviction in the U.S. Supreme Court. The slippery slope is an abused argument in general, but here attention must be paid to it. Carter represents the worst case imaginable (“Hard cases make bad law”), but her conviction not only points to escalating speech restrictions but also to “duty to rescue” laws and wide-ranging prosecutions for being an assessory to a self-murder. How many slips down that slope the Carter case polishes, for example, does it take to decide to prosecute the kid I wrote about here, who learned that his friend was going to help a girl kill herself and did nothing in response?
I see two serious problems with this verdict — one moral, the other legal. First, Conrad Roy is responsible for his death. To argue that Carter committed manslaughter is to diminish Roy’s moral agency. It denies his free will. It’s wrong to deny compassion to someone so troubled that they’d attempt suicide, but we can’t move so far in the other direction that we race to find who’s “really” to blame when a person voluntarily takes their own life. It’s still an act of self-murder, and while Carter undoubtedly played a persuasive role, I can’t imagine where we will draw the line. Will we prosecute mean people for manslaughter when troubled teens kill themselves? Second, there are real First Amendment implications with this verdict. Carter’s actions were reprehensible, but she was sharing with him thoughts and opinions that he may have found persuasive but had the capacity to reject. A legal argument that renders otherwise-protected speech unlawful because it actually persuades would blast a hole in First Amendment jurisprudence.
When a young man dies — especially under these circumstances — the desire to hold someone accountable is entirely understandable. But the law can’t and shouldn’t try to right every wrong. Michelle Carter should go free.
The key sentence: “But the law can’t and shouldn’t try to right every wrong.” Society, however, should make its values clear and its ethics persuasive so no young woman behaves like Carter, and or reaches near adulthood age without functioning ethics alarms. I am tempted to discuss at length the messages the young receive from today’s culture that can disable those alarms, but will leave that for another post.
Ann Althouse works through the issue in her typical but ultimately persuasive manner, first asking the law professor-ish question, “Where do we draw the line at making arguments that the law can’t do something because where would we draw the line?”, which translates into “Isn’t using the slippery slope argument a slippery slope?” Then she asks, “Why couldn’t Michelle Carter’s crime be understood as abetting the self-murder committed by Conrad Roy or a conspiracy with Roy to murder Roy?” My answer would be that mere words aren’t “abetting;” her answer is, “There’s no statute making suicide a crime. But up until fairly recently, there was statutory law making suicide a felony in the United States.”
Next, the retired law professor makes this argument:
“In recent decades, there has been some evolution toward making it legal to assist in a suicide, but in the U.S., this is only for medical professionals helping somebody who’s dying. …but what if a person is close to a someone who is suicidal and comes to believe that they genuinely want to die and is convinced it’s their choice and offers moral support and encouragement? You don’t need to agree with the autonomy idea to want to refrain from criminally punishing somebody like Michelle Carter who speaks in accordance with that idea.”
That’s the problem with the case and its potential progeny, though: crimes require mens rea and evidence of malice or gross negligence. How can we tell whether Michelle’s horrible conduct was based on good intentions or malign ones? This goes back to last week’s Ethics Alarms debate about whether the ethical nature of conduct should be judged by motives. My ethics verdict is that encouraging someone to take their own life is wrong no matter what the motive is. Ethics alarms don’t function well with unambiguous programming.
Finally, after playing Devil’s advocate and showing off her well-honed professorial skill at taking both sides of a question simultaneously (this is why some people have no tolerance for her blog, I’m sure), Althouse finally delivers another reason why this slope is too slippery to risk:
“There’s too much danger of selective prosecution, going after the people who seem awful, and too much power put in the hands of suicidal people to wreak harm on others, finally going through with a suicide after someone who’s making them angry lets slip with some text daring them to stop talking about it and do it already.”