First of all, let me be clear: I think Michelle Carter is awful and what she did is despicable. Pushing a troubled teen to commit suicide is morally reprehensible. That being said, her conviction for the death of Conrad Roy is totally outlandish. This afternoon, Carter will be sentenced for involuntary manslaughter for encouraging Roy to kill himself, and she could end up in prison for 20 years.
Yes, Carter is partly responsible for Roy’s death. Roy had rigged his vehicle so that he would die from carbon monoxide poisoning. He got scared and stopped, and then she pushed him to go back and do it. But he’s still the one who did it.
The charge of involuntary manslaughter was a desperate attempt to punish behavior that was terrible, but not at all within the description of the crime for which she was convicted.
For starters, the so-called “involuntary manslaughter” was neither involuntary nor manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts is defined as “An unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendants’ wanton or reckless conduct. The text messages show that Carter knew exactly what she was doing and meant for Roy to kill himself. There was nothing unintentional about it. Take that in conjunction with the fact that Carter did not kill Roy, and an involuntary manslaughter conviction amounts to nothing more than a legal fiction that everyone is just going along with because Carter is a bad person.
Now, the ACLU is up in arms because they think that punishing someone for text messages is a violation of the First Amendment, but don’t agree with that either. True texts are not the same as killing someone, but not all speech is protected. Brandenburg v. Ohio set a test that says speech is not protected if it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and “likely to incite or produce such action.” Carter clearly directed Roy to kill himself, and it did produce that action. While there may not be a stand alone statute criminalizing suicide, Massachusetts law is clear that it is not permitted.
If the court wanted to expand the boundaries of the law in order to punish Carter, there’s a much easier way they could have done it. Carter engaged in discussions with Roy about killing him, resulting in Roy carrying out the act. That’s not far off from conspiracy. In Massachusetts, the elements of conspiracy are joining an agreement with another person to do something unlawful, knowing of a plan and intent to do it. Carter and Roy discussed Roy’s death, she knew the plan was for Roy to kill himself, and she told him what to do to carry the plan to fruition with the intent of him following her instructions.
Now, if this sounds like a stretch, you’re right. But it’s not nearly as much of a stretch as involuntary manslaughter, which is utter nonsense.
If you want Carter to face consequences, there’s always the civil route. She’d likely be held liable in a wrongful death lawsuit, since she absolutely contributed to Roy’s death by encouraging him. But there’s a difference between being partially liable for something happening and being guilty of a crime.
Listen, I get that people want Carter to suffer because she did something awful. It feels right to punish her for something. Hell, it feels wrong for me to argue otherwise. But we’re a nation of laws, not feelings.
Ronn Blitzer is the Senior Editor of LawNewz.com and a former prosecutor in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @RonnBlitzer
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.