A Sad and Terrible Verdict in Massachusetts

by David French

In Massachusetts, we just saw a textbook example of how bad facts (in this case, horrific facts) can make bad law. Here’s the Washington Post with the details:

In a landmark case, a Massachusetts judge has ruled that Michelle Carter, who urged her boyfriend through phone calls and text messages to kill himself, is responsible for his death.

Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz announced Friday that Carter, 20, is guilty of involuntary manslaughter after placing Conrad Roy III in a situation that led to his suicide in 2014.

There is no question that Carter behaved terribly. In fact, her conduct was unconscionable, and she certainly played a key role in an absolutely heartbreaking death:

Roy, 18, and Carter, who was 17 at the time, had been texting about death in the days and weeks leading up to the tragedy, according to court records. In one message, Carter told him: “You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die.”

Moniz, however, focused on Roy’s final moments when he wavered, stepping out of the truck — and Carter told him to “Get back in.” The judge said that though Carter knew Roy was in trouble, she took no action.

“She admits in a subsequent text that she did nothing — she did not call the police or Mr. Roy’s family,” Moniz said in court. “Finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’”

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.  

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