Text Message Manslaughter

June 2017 has been one of the stranger months when it comes to criminal defense. Bill Cosby was tried for rape, but his trial ended in a mistrial when the jury could not come to an agreement about his guilt. Then there was the confounding finding that there would be no charges brought against the officer in the Philando Castile case. And even more unusual, a young woman, Michelle Carter, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself – through text messages.

Roy, who was 18 at the time, was found dead in his pickup truck in a Kmart parking lot. He had rigged a system where carbon monoxide coming out of his tail pipe would go straight into his lungs. More horrifyingly, he actually got out of the truck to stop, and called Carter who told him to get back in the car and get it over with. At the time, Carter was only 17, which made her a ‘youthful offender.’ In Massachusetts, this is a hybrid charge, where she was not quite a juvenile, but not quite an adult, and therefore, could face a harsher prison sentence than that of a juvenile charge.

This could very well be a case that is a signal of the things to come in our increasingly digital lifestyles. The district attorney argued to the court that people are increasingly falling in love over the Internet, encouraging others to kill themselves or commit crimes through simple messages. This case is even more striking because, Massachusetts, unlike over 40 other states, has no law against assisting someone taking their own life. The case was allowed to proceed on the charge of involuntary manslaughter due to long precedent where two defendants had been convicted of the same crime for the suicide of others back in the 1960s.

The verdict is not without its critics. Manslaughter usually requires some sort of ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ action – and even though Carter’s words had intent, there was no action because Roy is the one who ultimately was responsible for his death. In Massachusetts, involuntary manslaughter is characterized as an unlawful killing unintentionally caused as the result of defendants’ wanton or reckless conduct or an unlawful killing that resulted during the commission of a dangerous battery by a defendant. Usually, involuntary manslaughter is for something like shooting a gun off on accident. But in this case, by treating someone’s words as the weapons itself, the court has created what could be a rather difficult precedent to carry.

The court found that it was compelling that Carter did not help Roy when he got out of his vehicle, but rather instructed him to keep going. The evidence also showed that Carter had actually texted Roy several suggestions on how to kill oneself, including via hanging, jumping off a building, and creating a deadly pill cocktail. However, Roy had also searched for “easy, quick and painless ways to commit suicide” in the weeks leading up to his death, and had attempted suicide before. While Carter’s behavior is despicable, and certainly shows a young woman who took advantage of a mentally ill and vulnerable man, the guilty verdict is somewhat surprising. Broadening the definition of manslaughter could lead to increased charges, perhaps for cases that do not necessarily warrant or fit the elements.

As for Carter, she is scheduled to me sentenced on August 3, and is facing a maximum penalty of 20 years. The defense mitigated Carter’s actions by asserting she was facing her own mental health issues, and the medication she was on inhibited her impulse control – something the judge could take into consideration while sentencing her. And of course, the defense has 30 days to appeal the conviction – something that has not been confirm, but seems ripe for an appellate court’s opinion, given the wide-ranging implications of such a verdict.

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