Another Leap Down A Slippery Slope: Massachusetts Repeats The Michelle Carter Debacle

The Suffolk County (Mass.) District Attorney has charged Inyoung You, a 21-year-old South Korean native and former Boston College student,  with involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of 22-year-old Alexander Urtula, who jumped to his death on May 20, 2019, the day he was going to graduate.  You was in cellphone contact with her boyfriend that day, and was at the scene when he plunged to his death.

While Urtula struggled with mental health issues throughout the pair’s 18-month relationship,  You was “physically, verbally, and psychologically abusive, and was so “wanton and reckless” that it  “resulted in overwhelming Mr. Urtula’s will to live,” the DA told reporters. “She was aware of his spiraling depression and suicidal thoughts brought on by her abuse, yet she persisted, continuing to encourage him to take his own life.”  Among the over 47,000 text messages sent by You in the two months leading up to Urtula’s suicide, here were hundreds “where (You) instructed him” to take his own life, as well as “claims that she, his family and the world would be better off without him.”

Nice.

But is it criminal?

There are differences in the two cases, but this is redolent of the 2017 prosecution and conviction Michelle Carter, who was convicted in the Bay State of involuntary manslaughter for urging her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself, which he did. The conviction was upheld by an appeals court this past February, so Carter will apparently serve out her entire 15 month sentence—for the content of her text messages.

It is rare that I can repeat almost an entire post word for word in analysis of a  completely different story, but that is the case here. The only changes in the foregoing replace Carter’s name with You’s or add You’s name when appropriate.  Beyond that, I agree with my position in 2017 without amendment or hesitation. Here is the section of the June 18, 2017 Ethics Alarms post that followed a detailed description of Carter’s “crime.”

…Ethically, [Yuo’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 [Inyoung You]  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 … 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 [and You] represent the worst cases imaginable (“Hard cases make bad law”), but  Carter’s 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[and You]  cases polish, 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?

Wrote  David French in The National Review: 

“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. [ You…and 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 or You, 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.”

Exactly.

18 thoughts on “Another Leap Down A Slippery Slope: Massachusetts Repeats The Michelle Carter Debacle

  1. You had a very early entry on this blog about a man who led a woman to believe that he was able to father children when he knew he wasn’t. A court determined that what he did was wrong, but that the court system cannot be used to right every wrong.

    This situation is similar. She’s despicable if the accusation is true. That doesn’t mean she broke the law.

  2. While I hate navigating, any slope that may infringe upon free speech I am going to take a contrarian position.

    We stipulate that certain speech is not protected. The most famous example is yelling fire in a crowded theater. So why is that not protectect? The answer is that it is reasonably foreseeable that mass casualties could occur when the psychological impulse to flee out of fear takes hold and calm reasoned exits by the masses are replaced with mass stampedes.

    Should it matter if the psychological effect cause multiple casualties or, in the case of a fragile individual, a single person harmed by virtue of words triggering a psychological response? I don’t believe we should allow one form of umprotected speech for crowds but not for a singular victim.

    • If the facts presented are accurate, and they may not be (because they are the accusations of the DA and could be substantially inaccurate or twisted), then this is a situation of a person who manipulates the mind and emotions of a mentally ill person or a person who does not have all their pieces correctly assembled. A mentally healthy person would, if told they should kill themself, laugh in their face or perhaps punch them on the nose.

      One must assume that all the people in the crowded theater are normal, sane persons, and when they hear the shout of ‘fire!’ react normally. So, if one does shout fire and normal people react (normally and sanely) and someone gets hurt or dies, it stands to reason that liability should apply. One either reacts, and saves oneself, or disbelieves and waits for further evidence: but waiting might result in getting burned up.

      But one could — technically — say any number of things to a mentally ill person that could make them go off the deep ends. One could look at them funny, or wink suspiciously. (I am not insinuating here anything about Zoltar or any of the blog-contributors from Texas mind you … 🙂 )

      True, if one were very cynical and truly nasty — even wicked — one could contribute to a mentally ill person taking their life.

      You could (one could I mean), if you really set your mind to it, break a *normal* heart and do such damage that they might take years to recover, if they did recover. Emotional wounds are devastating, especially when they are inflicted through cruelty. There are acts of emotional cruelty that maim and kill. The things we do, or don’t do, have tremendous effect. But how could one ever be held accountable by the law for such things?

      If the case was decided against the wicked woman, and if the conviction were upheld, just imagine the ramifications. They are too vast to be considered. For who is really *mentally ill* and who is not? And what is ’emotional harm’? And what will the limit be when people blame their own choices on the actions of others? It is a strange abandonment of agency.

      Today, the pitiable University students who scamper from dorm room to cafeteria like rodents in fear of the whole world and even the whole Universe and who seem to ask society for protection and a ‘safe-space’ and who have hysterical public screaming fits and tantrum melt-downs when the protective veil is rent … would be given the precedent to bring liability suits against anyone who hurt their feelings or simply scared them.

      But isn’t that where things are going? Liability therefore for *triggering* someone’s hysteria. For inflecting a word wrong. For putting black make-up on your face. For dressing in the wrong costume. There is no end to it.

  3. The case is very compelling that she should not be held accountable for his death.

    Yet perhaps it would be best if the mob cornered her in some back ally and — I am just winging it here — cut off her left foot. Not sure if with a hatchet or with an old rusty wood saw. Hmmmmm. Decisions decisions.

    It would not be in accord with the law and yet (if she really did act so terribly) it would be strangely just: she’d still be able to hobble about for the rest of her natural life … yet she’d always have to remember.

    Not sure if this will pass the true *ethics test* though.

  4. You is undoubtedly a monster although not at the level of Jim Jones who with the aid of his thugs forced his disciples to drink spiked cool-aide. I hope that if this little psychopath is acquitted of manslaughter, a massive punitive lawsuit will follow.

  5. Hmm. Comparing these two cases as if they were exactly the same is not fair or ethical:

    In Carter’s case she knew her victim for a long time, several years. She initially, for at least several months if not the better part of a year, tried to TALK HIM OUT of suicide. Eventually, over a long period of time he convinced her to help him. She stuck with him, even though he made several failed attempts at suicide for years. Finally, she did ‘push him the last bit over the edge’ in the end. Carter was never accused of being physically abusive toward Roy. Nor did she apparently ever try to ‘guilt’ him into being her friend with threats of suicide of her own. She also apparently never threatened him. For all the reasons Roy felt he had to commit suicide, Carter was NOT one of them. I think her sentence is appropriate and yes, I can appreciate that there is a good argument she shouldn’t have been punished at all for the larger purpose of a protecting the First Amendment. But if she had to be punished, it seems she got the appropriate amount. Carter doesn’t appear to be an evil young lady.

    You is different. I don’t know the details, but if the Prosecutor isn’t lying, she supposedly was physically abusive. She also supposedly made threats that if he stopped talking to her she would kill herself. In addition to that, she verbally abused Urtula for months, lowering his already low self-esteem and/or contributing to any mental problems he might have had. In short, she made living WITH her in his life hell, and threatened to make his life miserable without her as well. The only thing I wonder about is why didn’t he get a restraining order of some type against her? Perhaps he was afraid she’d kill herself, or perhaps he was ignorant of his rights as an abuse victim, because of all the literature produced online and off for “domestic violence” somewhere around 99 percent is directed at solely a female audience where it is assumed a male perp, even though not only are there are far more than one percent male abuse victims, but most abuse in relationships is MUTUAL (meaning not one sided) hence the prevalence of ‘primary abuser’ statutes because feminists were offended too many women were being arrested when officers had been given discretion.

    Anyway, I see You as far more complicit in this young man’s death and , even if she isn’t prosecuted for her speech, she should be for her physical violence and I think far more than one year is appropriate.

    • “There are differences in the two cases” was explicitly stated in the case. Moreover, I come to exactly the opposite position you do: the evidence shows that Carter helped engineer Roy’s suicide. What earthly difference does it make that she once tried to talk him out of suicide? Millions of murders between lovers could be excused that way: “but he loved her once!” Past conduct doesn’t mitigate present crimes.

      Similarly, so what if You was physically abusive? Unless the physical abuse causes a death by fatally injuring the victim, or if it physically forces the individual to kill himself, it’s legally irrelevant to suicide. In criminal and tort law, the issue is often causation. With the logic being used against You, suicides could prompt murder charges against parents for acts they committed decades ago.

      Moreover, abuse victims, male and female, still have personal responsibility for their own welfare. They have autonomy. Toxic relationships are not criminal. Maybe there was a civil suit that could have been brought against You for damages, as for intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the “she was so mean to him he killed himself” theory is an even more slippery slope than “her words killed him.”

      • “Past conduct doesn’t mitigate present crimes.”
        It goes to INTENT , which, last I heard, was still relevant to most crimes , as well as something someone would have to deal with in any kind of ‘ethics’ post on a situation.

        Arguing these women are the same and that they deserve the same punishment (or lack of punishment) is so obtuse that i don’t even know where to begin. And physical abuse is a crime in and of itself, so that would argue FOR prosecuting You, whereas it would argue AGAINST prosecuting Carter, even if neither was prosecuted for ‘mere words’.

        I even agree with almost all of what you say about Abuse victims having autonomy! I was one myself and I did what I could to protect myself. But not all abuse is the same and it seems there is little or not abuse on Carter’s part and plenty on You’s part and that makes all the difference to me.

        Anyway, since we’ve already punished Carter for this, I don’t care what happens to You but I hope she is miserable the rest of her life.

        • 1. Watch your tone with me. And put scare quotes around ethics again, and your commenting privileges are suspended.
          2. If you are going to be obnoxious, you better have a better argument than THAT. Physical abuse in the past cannot and does not show intent to make someone kill himself, and no judge in the universe would allow such evidence in for that purpose. Benign conduct in the past cannot prove present intent.
          3. I didn’t argue that these two women were “the same,’ as I already pointed out. I did correctly note that both were or are being prosecuted on the dubious and dangerous theory that mere words kill. They don’t.
          4. Your argument is incoherent.

          • 2) Since that was never my argument – you can enjoy your strawman.
            My argument was that physical abuse was a crime, and that one could still prosecute You for that, whereas Carter (by your own argument) did nothing prosecuteable.
            3) “Mere words” can kill. That’s why we have statutes against incitement to violence. You are just saying that these particular types of words can’t kill, which is a different argument. I might even agree with you on that, but I still think You should be prosecuted: For the abuse if nothing else.
            4). Says the guy who got my argument wrong.

            • Bye. I warned you. You can send an apology for your tone to your host here (jamproethics@verizon.net) along with a promise to be appropriately respectful and civil in the future, or you can eschew commenting forever more. Your choice. The post was about what You was charged with, manslaughter by word, not what she could have been charged with.

              I am more tolerant of snark when it is accompanied by a valid point, and you have none.

          • NOTICE: Following this reply, RezoTheRedPriest sent a comment even more obnoxious than the previous one. He’s banned: I gave him the option of apologizing and reforming, and he rejected it, an almost infallible test showing that the disciplinary action was warranted. In what turned out to be his final post, making a really lame argument, he wrote “Arguing these women are the same and that they deserve the same punishment (or lack of punishment) is so obtuse that I don’t even know where to begin.” That’s over the line, and he was duly warned. His next comment was defiantly insulting, and that was that.

            I won’t be condescended to or insulted here. Passionate disagreement is always fine. “Your argument is incoherent” is fair; “so obtuse that I don’t even know where to begin” is not. If you are going to call me obtuse, you BETTER know where to begin, ad you better be smiling.

  6. A relative of mine had a spouse who convinced her to go to a psychiatrist who was friends with him. She suspected he was cheating on her (he was), but he told her she was delusional and paranoid. The psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressants known to cause suicidal thoughts. Her husband was aware of this and she began to display suicidal tendencies. He was on the phone with her as she said she was thinking of killing herself and scared. Instead of coming home to take her to the hospital, he instigated a big argument then told her to take all her psychiatric meds at once to kill herself. He told her repeatedly to do it, that she was worthless, that she would be doing him and the kids a favor, etc. She did take them all and told him so on the phone. He then hung up. He didn’t return home for 6 hours, my guess is he expected to find her dead. Instead, he found her enraged in a psychotic state caused by the overdose of medications.

    No charges were brought, but in my mind, this was attempted murder. There are a lot of good points about people being framed by someone who commits suicide (suicidal people often want revenge for being wronged) in the post. However, my problem is with the number of psychiatric medications that cause suicidal thoughts. If you know someone is on medications that can cause suicidal thoughts and urges and you see them displaying them, isn’t encouraging them to kill themselves criminal at this point? In these instances, the person is not able to control the urges, they are caused by the mediation. Taking advantage of their medically induced state to get them to kill themselves isn’t just words at this point any more than having a voice-activated bomb go off was just words.

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