Last week, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, who killed himself by inhaling carbon monoxide. Carter had strongly urged Roy to commit suicide via many text messages and a phone conversation. This case has sparked a debate over free speech across the nation, so we asked experts in criminal defense to weigh in with their opinions.
Here’s what they had to say:
“The judicial verdict finding Michelle Carter guilty of manslaughter clearly challenges the viability of the school yard adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.’ The evidence presents Ms. Carter’s only contribution to the sad suicide of Conrad Roy were her texts and spoken words from a distance. Many will agree that her voiced instruction for Mr. Roy to re-enter the poisonous compartment was callous and her failure to contact medical assistance unforgivable, but many respectfully question whether those words and inaction rise to the level of criminality and caused the death of young Mr. Roy. It will be interesting to see how the appellate courts opine on how criminally impactful words may be. Can the pen truly be as deadly as the sword?” Daniel J. Konieczka, a Criminal Defense attorney in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas.
“Michelle Carter had a fair trial by a jury of her peers. The jury has spoken loud and clear, encouraging a person to commit suicide will subject you to criminal penalties including incarceration. Citizens should take the jury’s message very seriously.” —Michael Petro, a Criminal Defense attorney in Chicago
“This case is very frightening. Essentially this Court has ruled that words via text and phone calls can be a murder weapon. This expands the law in Massachusetts at least. Suicide by definition is caused by oneself, not by another. I do not think the same result would be found in other jurisdictions and ultimately may still be overturned in Massachusetts as Carter’s lawyers are appealing the issue. However, we do live in a different world today, where social media, Facebook and texting are the norm. Technology intertwines with every part of our daily life now, and perhaps, this will be the first case of many regulating and ultimately punishing digital behavior in the manslaughter realm.” —Justin Lovely, a Criminal Defense and Injury Law attorney in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I believe the conviction is supported by criminal law and is constitutional. Words are not always passive reflections. Words can themselves be active and represent behaviors the same as bodily actions. In response to arguments that this type of conviction infringes upon First Amendment free speech rights, I would argue that this case is more akin to yelling ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater, which is itself an exception to free speech rights. Ms. Carter’s words were intended to motivate harmful behavior on the part of the victim. I think an alternative legal argument for a conviction is that Ms. Carter had a duty to aid the victim and failed to do so. The duty would arise because of her personal relationship with the victim and being responsible for placing him in a situation where he was dangerous to himself.” —Melissa Hamilton, JD; PhD, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center
“I think just about everyone would agree that Michelle Carter’s behavior was shocking and morally wrong, but it remains difficult to say that she was the actual cause of Conrad Roy’s death. At the end of the day, as the defense argued, only he could make the decision to end his own life. He had attempted to do it before, researched various methods for doing it, and had acquired the tools to do it. The judge’s ruling seems to undermine the idea that we as human beings have free will and the ability to make our own decisions. It also becomes incredibly difficult to draw a dividing line for where criminal lability should attach in a case like this. Does it require multiple commands and encouragement to commit suicide? If so, how many? And could it attach simply from treating someone so horribly that they choose to commit suicide despite no explicit encouragement? Finally, there are real free speech concerns. Courts have always held that certain types of speech are not protected, but this case really pushes the limits.” —Zak Goldstein, a Criminal Defense lawyer practicing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
“I find it interesting that a person can be found guilty of manslaughter by words alone. This seems like it could lead to manslaughter charges in a lot of suicide cases where bullying is thought to have been a contributing factor. I agree that Ms. Carter’s words were morally reprehensible, but it seems like a dangerous precedent to hold her criminally responsible for his actions. What if a teenager tells a friend he thinks he should go steal something from the store. He texts him over and over and eventually the friend goes to the store and steals something. The person who was texting is not going to be charged with retail theft or anything at all. The ultimate responsibility for the theft lies solely with the teen who actually stole the item. I fail to see how encouraging someone to commit suicide is any different as far a criminal law.” Amanda Waechter PC, a Criminal Defense attorney in Plainfield, IL
“What is ultimately troubling about the Michelle Carter verdict is a concept at the heart of criminal law. Criminal responsibility always rests on free will. This is not a case of duress; it is a case of encouragement. That may suffice to establish recklessness by Ms. Carter, but it leaves us keenly aware that Conrad Roy easily could have prevented his own death. Because she urged him on, Michelle Carter shares the blame for his tragic suicide, and if she had been prosecuted for aiding or assisting that suicide, the relatively minor punishment that crime usually carries would have seemed a better fit for her culpability. A manslaughter conviction, while legally supportable, feels excessive for words of encouragement.” —Geary Reamey, a criminal law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law
“I think it’s a dangerous ruling which has significant constitutional implications. Any lawyer already knows that not every word spoken is protected by the First Amendment (such as the classic shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater), but this decision elevates the status of a private conversation to that level of “speech as action.” I think a good analogy to explain why this decision is so troubling would be to consider a person standing at a crosswalk, and a blind person approaches. The blind person asks whether it is safe to cross. The other person sees a car coming but tells the blind person it’s safe. The blind person starts to cross and is struck and killed by the car. I see no problem charging the other person with a crime, given the clear disregard for the victim’s safety, and the knowledge that the victim was relying on what was being said, to a clear detriment. This is very different from the Michelle Carter case, where Conrad Roy voluntarily put himself in this dangerous situation. Ms. Carter may have encouraged him to continue, but Mr. Roy went in with eyes wide open and a full understanding of what the potential consequences could be.” —Glenn Kurtzrock, a Criminal Defense lawyer in Long Island, New York
“This is an extreme and tragic situation with horrific facts for the defendant. What scares me as as defense attorney is that often times horrific facts are used to create legal opinions that slowly become a slippery slope and are applied harshly to other situations and circumstances where it does not fit. Traditionally, courts punish individuals for their actions, not for failing to act. In this case, however, there was evidence that indicated that it was more than her simply failing to act. In fact, she encouraged and pushed the victim to continue to go through with his plans. While I understand the verdict, I think the judge’s reasoning is troublesome. At what point does someone have a ‘self-created duty to act’? We must think about what ways this ‘self created duty’ impede on individuals liberties.” —Scott M. Aaronson, a Criminal Defense and Expungements attorney in Southfield, Michigan