Suicide

Telling People to Kill Themselves

The Michelle Carter case and the complex relationship between causation and mental health.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The news came down this month that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Michelle Carter, the woman who at age 17 in 2014 encouraged her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. The full decision is here. Robby Soave at Reason and others have raised free speech concerns, and Eugene Volokh has commented previously on how unusual it is to see individuals encourage others to kill themselves.

Carter's actions are shocking to most: she seemingly helped Roy via texting to plan his suicide through carbon monoxide inhalation in his pickup truck, convinced him through texts to get back in the truck when he interrupted his attempt at one point, and then listened over the phone as he suffocated to death. One might wonder, with significant others like that, who needs enemies. That said, did Carter deserve her (15-month) jail sentence?

The case raises many questions, but one of them concerns the issue of causation in the context of manslaughter. Massachusetts in relevant part defines involuntary manslaughter as "[a]n unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendants' wanton or reckless conduct". Nicholas LaPalme wrote (before the decision of the MA SJC came out) an informative student note in the BU Law Review about the case and the thorny issue of causation in its context, which I recommend to those who want to dig into the subject more deeply.

MA does not have a criminal statute that specifically covers the encouragement of suicide, which is why prosecutors apparently and successfully resorted to an involuntary manslaughter theory. While I don't think the answer is obvious, my current thinking is that the case was decided incorrectly.

The SJC agreed with the lower court that Carter engaged in "coercion, in the sense of overpowering the victim's will." Indeed, the SJC stated that:

Until the victim got out of the truck, the judge described the victim as the cause of his own suicidal actions and reactions. This period of "self-causation" and "self-help," which is completely consistent with his prior behavior, ended when he got out of the truck.

The SJC added:

The judge could have properly found, based on this evidence, that the vulnerable, confused, mentally ill, eighteen year old victim had managed to save himself once again in the midst of his latest suicide attempt, removing himself from the truck as it filled with carbon monoxide. But then in this weakened state he was badgered back into the gas-infused truck by the defendant, his girlfriend and closest, if not only, confidant in this suicidal planning, the person who had been constantly pressuring him to complete their often discussed plan, fulfill his promise to her, and finally commit suicide. And then after she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die.

I am far from convinced that the fact that we are dealing with a "vulnerable, confused, mentally ill" adult is sufficient to break the chain of self-causation. While the case was reminiscent in some ways of that in which Lori Drew convinced 13-year-old Megan Meier via a fake MySpace account to kill herself, one of the key differences is that Meier was a minor, a status that often comes with special legal treatment (note: Orin Kerr was a pro bono lawyer for Drew, and the judge actually overturned the jury's conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).

While Roy suffered from depression and had made previous aborted suicide attempts, it is not clear to me that he was mentally incompetent in a legally relevant sense. He had not lost touch with reality such as by suffering a psychotic breakdown or the like at the time of his suicide. His texts strike me as entirely lucid. To overpower a victim's will, the victim for all intents and purposes needs to be deprived of free will—I don't see sufficient evidence that he was.

Relatedly, if Roy's will was under a cloud, what about Carter's? Carter, who unlike Roy was technically still a minor (though barely), had her own history of mental health problems and had been taking antidepressants for several years. Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin (admittedly, a controversial figure in his field) testified at the trial that Carter was "enmeshed in a delusion" and thought she was helping Roy when encouraging him to end his suffering through suicide. For those interested, Dr. Breggins put together an extensive archive about his views on the case, including that Carter's behavior, which previously included trying to keep Roy from killing himself, experienced a change after a medication switch a few months before the suicide.

If a legislature wishes to punish behavior like Carter's, it will have to think extensively through its requirements for the mental state of both the victim and the perpetrator to tease out what it means to overwhelm someone else's will without one's own will being considered overwhelmed. MA's involuntary manslaughter statute does not do that work, and using it in this case circumvents the fact that the legislature chose not to make encouragement of suicide a specific, stand-alone criminal offense. We should not let our strong distaste for Michelle Carter's actions detract from the realization that this case sets a dangerous precedent.

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131 responses to “Telling People to Kill Themselves

  1. Seems “wanton and reckless” enough to me. You might argue that simply not calling 911 when you know somebody is in the middle of committing suicide isn’t direct enough, being inaction rather than action, but surely having planned the suicide for them, and encouraged it, is enough to resolve that.

    1. Being a minor ought to change things. Would a 5- or 10-year old have been charged?

      I also think agency is vital: criminals who have been released from prison, parole, probation, or other State supervision should get back all their rights, including possessing guns and voting. If they can’t be trusted with those rights, then they shouldn’t be released from State supervision.

      Same here: if he had enough freedom to be on his own and not be locked up in a mental facility, then he was responsible for his own actions.

      This kind of second guessing bothers me. To say that she should have known better, when the guy’s guardians didn’t and the State didn’t, is hindsight as its best/worst.

      1. Come on, just barely a minor. 17 is old enough to be responsible for your own choices, let’s not pretend she was some toddler who didn’t know what she was doing.

        1. There’s still a legal distinction. Do legal distinctions not matter any more? Can the State just change its mind on the spur of the moment to get the decision some State actor wants?

          1. Yes, there’s a legal distinction, and a 17 year old is not a full on minor legally in all sorts of ways.

          2. 17 is an adult for criminal justice purposes in some states, so I don’t see that she should get a pass just for being under 18. I’d agree that a young child shouldn’t be charged, and an older child/early teen would be questionable and case-by-case.

          3. The ability to try a minor as an adult in certain cases is also a well established “legal distinction”

          4. Can the State just change its mind on the spur of the moment to get the decision some State actor wants?

            When it comes to trying a teenager as a minor or as an adult, yes, absolutely. This is well-established. They do it all the time, often because the severity of the crime (killing someone, for example).

    2. You’re largely skipping over the causation prong. It isn’t enough that the conduct was wanton and/or reckless; that conduct has to cause the death. It seems you link the behavior to the result by saying she “encouraged” it, but I’m not sure that “encouraged it” is the same as “causing” it in a legal sense.

      1. +100

      2. She didn’t just encourage it, she planned it, and then bullied him into finishing when he changed his mind halfway through.

        1. I can encourage, plan, and bully you into voting and that is not a crime.

          I can encourage, plan, and bully you into running and that is not a crime.

          I can encourage, plan, and bully you into jumping from a cliff into water and that is not a crime.

          I can encourage, plan, and bully you into parachuting and that is not a crime.
          ….

          He chose to kill himself.

          1. Neat new goalposts there, loveconstitution. This was both but-for and proximate cause.

            As to your off-topic list of things that are not crimes, whether it’s a crime or not depends on the consequences. Unlike getting wet or voting, in this case there was a death.

          2. Wbat if you encouraged, planned, and bullied someone into robbing a bank, then, at the last second they decided not to do it, and you convinced them to walk inside and do it anyway?

            If suicide is a crime then this should be illegal for the same reason. If not, then not, since encouraging someone to do something legal is not a crime.

            And that still wouldn’t mean she shouldn’t suffer monstrous social pressure herself because of it.

            1. If you spend a bunch of time on the social ramifications of her advocacy, then I really don’t care about discussing that.

              Since this was about prosecuting her, that is what I care about because it sets a precedent for future retarded prosecutors and grabbing more state power to the detriment of Americans.

              I actually am against conspiracy crimes that are solely based on speech and written word, as it is protected by the 1A. People who help people commit crimes via actions would be aiding and abetting, which is not protected by the Constitution.

              So, there’s that. Then there is that suicide should not be a crime since the state has no enumerated power to control when people die at their own hands.

              As to your example, theft is a crime. The people that rob that bank are responsible. Not the people that “encourage” you to do it or the people that say its a great idea or tell you how to rob a bank.

              Some guy was convicted of teaching people to beat Polygraph machines. Same stupid logic to convict people. This guy was not lying under oath, so the people that do are responsible.

            2. If you encourage, plan and bully someone to rob a bank, including showing up and tell them to do it (but don’t go in yourself) you are undoubtedly an accomplice to the crime.

              Oddly this case is trickier because of the decriminalization of suicide. If suicide is illegal then helping plan a suicide is helping plan a murder. If it’s legal to commit suicide then helping plan a suicide isn’t a crime.

      3. You’re right on the money, but I am not seeing how people can be so certain the defendant didn’t cause her boyfriend’s death. That question is wholly fact dependent, not a legal one. If he was mentally ill, etc., a loved one’s suggestions would have compelling weight. The question, then, is not whether he had some volition in his suicide. Rather, the question is whether the defendant was a “but for” cause of his death (i.e. but for her suggestions, he would not have killed himself). Given that he had aborted the suicide, but she encouraged him to reengage seems compelling evidence in favor of that finding. So, even if the boyfriend chose to kill himself, he might not have done so without his girlfriend’s encouragement. If that were the case, causation is met. I’m not sure I understand the contrary arguments.

        The first amendment stuff is another can of worms, but I think finding causation here doesn’t give me any pause.

        1. she seemingly helped Roy via texting to plan his suicide through carbon monoxide inhalation in his pickup truck, convinced him through texts to get back in the truck when he interrupted his attempt at one point, and then listened over the phone as he suffocated to death.

        2. I’d have to think about it some more to have a more fixed opinion, but I tend to agree with a lot of this summation. The point of my comment was more noting the difference between the conduct and the cause.

    3. “wanton and reckless” – maybe. “unintentional” – definitely not. There is no way this should have passed the test for involuntary manslaughter.

      And “barely a minor” is still a minor under all other aspects of the law. I think that’s a dumb rule generally but it is the rule in MA (and I must confess that I don’t have a more workable rule that doesn’t have arbitrary distinctions in it) so both the courts and you are stuck with it.

  2. That said, did Carter deserve her (15-month) jail sentence?

    She does not deserve a conviction let alone any jail time.

    She was never accused of murder, so this boy killed himself. He was personally responsible for his own actions in killing himself.

    Everything she said or encouraged him to do is covered by the 1st Amendment, no matter how people don’t like what she said.

    The 1st Amendment was designed to keep government from criminalizing speech and the written word.

    This is how lost we are as a Nation.

    1. Speaking from personal experience, the suicidally depressed have less agency than you think. Generally it’s the only thing keeping them alive.

      1. I come from a position that suicide is not a bad thing and certainly should not be a crime.

        So all actions off that perfectly legal suicide (“convincing someone to kill themselves”), should not be criminal either.

        If someone does not have enough cause to stay alive, then maybe they should be dead. Its their choice in the case of suicide.

        1. I come from the position that suicide can be a rational decision in some situations, but, again speaking from personal experience, usually isn’t. I started taking SAMe due to traumatic arthritis, and shortly after found I didn’t want to kill myself anymore.

          I wasn’t suicidal as a result of rationally evaluating my circumstances, it was just screwed up biochemistry. Likely in this guy’s case, too.

          1. I get that position where people have mental issues or whatever and should get help with suicidal thoughts or whatever.

            There is nothing wrong with people killing themselves even under times of irrationality.

            There is certainly no authority morally or constitutionally for a “free” nation to criminalize speech and when a person wants to kill themselves.

            The USA has a problem with religion getting tangled with Constitutional authority. Religious people tend to not want people to kill themselves. That should not be the reason to criminalize suicide and those that “encourage” suicide.

            I personally think this is a legal attempt to stave off assisted suicide popularity.

            1. “There is nothing wrong with people killing themselves even under times of irrationality.”

              What would you think of taking advantage of somebody having a medical condition that rendered them incompetent, to trick them into transferring the contents of their bank account to you? I mean, it’s not a crime for them to give you all their money, right? It’s their choice.

              It’s a similar situation here: She wanted him dead, and manipulated him into killing himself by using his reduced competency against him. Not really any different from going around bilking people with Downs syndrome, except for the part where it’s irreversible.

              People who are suicidally depressed for neurological reasons, (Rather than just because they’ve got some incurable disease, and it hurts.) suffer from reduced competency on the question of killing themselves.

              1. Your not being clear on what you mean by “trick”.

                Old people sometimes give power of attorneys and they are cleaned out. It was their choice to give a thief a power of attorney. There is a lesson there.

                I get your incompetent position Brett but unless he was deemed incompetent, he was legally responsible for his actions.

                Furthermore, he’s dead so he cannot back up or refute the state’s unconstitutional position that she “caused” his death.

                The state could not prove murder beyond a reasonable doubt, so they tried this bullshit prosecution and the lackies in the courts are backing up the state. That is what appeal courts do best.

                1. Old people sometimes give power of attorneys and they are cleaned out. It was their choice to give a thief a power of attorney. There is a lesson there.

                  People who defraud the elderly like that get in trouble.

                  1. You clearly have no idea what you are talking about SacastrO.

                    Power of attorneys are not fraud.

                    1. They are if you don’t use them as a faithful agent of the person who granted it.

                    2. Yeah, power of attorney fiduciary scams are not a thing at all…

              2. She didn’t want him dead for any reason other than he wanted himself to be dead. She did not manipulate him into wanting himself to be dead. Read the opinion where it recites some of the long history of their relationship. He had wanted to die for years. He tried treatment. It didn’t help. He obviously had some sort of chemical imbalance, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was miserable and wanted to die. After attempting suicide multiple times and then backing out, only to attempt suicide again, his girlfriend helped him plan his suicide and then encouraged him to follow through. Was that wrong of her to do? I think so, because I am against assisted suicide. But she is not this evil creature the court (and you) tried to paint her as.

                1. Yeah, and she didn’t get put away for a decade, even. 15 months. That’s a pretty minimal sentence when there’s a dead body and you’re even partially responsible for it.

                  1. Felony for a non-crime.

                    Welcome to America.

                    Felonies for all sorts of unconstitutional criminal statutes.

        2. Did you read Brett’s comment? He’s right this time. To say “it’s their choice” when talking about a severely depressed person is not quite accurate.

          Depression is a treatable but sometimes fatal disease. Urging a depressed person to commit suicide is not vastly different than preventing a cancer victim from getting to an oncologist.

          1. 1) There is no constitutional authority for government to control when people die. None.

            2) Where is the line for when a person is capable for having agency to commit suicide?

            3) Where is the line for what a person can say to “encourage/not encourage” someone to commit suicide?

            Unless there was a murder, I don’t care. I also don’t want my taxpayer money spent on suicide prevention or criminalizing 1A speech “encouraging” people to off themselves.

          2. Furthermore, many states have Advanced Directives for Medical Care or similar Will planning that directs people when suicide is to be carried out by doctors or other persons.

            In my state of Georgia, this allows people to commit assisted suicide. Georgia simply wanted a single step to prevent murder in the name of suicide.

            1. “Where is the line….?”

              The existence of gray areas does imply the non-existence of black and white areas.

              1. And the black and white area is that the Constitution give no power to the state to keep people from killing themselves.

                Just like the state has no power to prevent people from being born.

                1. the Constitution give no power to the state to keep people from killing themselves.
                  …this was a state case.

                  1. The state does not get to decide what power it has.

                    The US and state Constitutions decide the powers and limitations of the state. Secured by the rights of the People.

                    1. I note a distinct lack of analysis of the Massachusetts constitution.

                    2. loveconstitution, I wonder if you have ever read a classic SF short story from the 1940’s, “The Weapon Shop” by A. E. van Vogt. Given your position, you would enjoy it. It deals to an extent with these very issues.

                    3. Sacastr() refuses to cites any MA Constitutional provision that gives that state the power to decide when its residents can be born or when they can die.

                      Normally, I would check back to see your citation but I know you won’t get one.

                    4. Your burden shifting is lame.

                      Article XXII. The legislature ought frequently to assemble for the redress of grievances, for correcting, strengthening and confirming the laws, and for making new laws, as the common good may require.

                      Making new laws does not seem limited.

    2. That said, did Carter deserve her (15-month) jail sentence?

      Of course she deserves it. But the question is about the first amendment.

      If, instead, she had walked him through a different crime, a bank robbery, wouldn’t that make her an accomplice…if not the outright leader?

      1. So now suicide is a crime? What happened to self-ownership?

        Used to joke in the Navy that getting a sunburn was destruction of government property. At least we knew we were joking; perhaps you overheard such jokes and didn’t realize they were jokes?

        1. Sunburn isn’t suicide, and I don’t know if it is a crime but I thought it was. And the discussion wasn’t the propriety of it-as-crime.

          1. You don’t language very well, do you?

            The sunburn joke was a joke related to the theme that suicide is a crime because it destroys State property.

            If suicide is not a crime, you must think this actually was manslaughter or murder.

      2. Suicide should not be a crime.

        In fact, I don’t think there is a constitutional basis for government preventing people from killing themselves. It basically the greatest freedom you can enjoy. Determining when you die.

        Since we all die at some point, how does the government get authority to criminalize death dying by your own hands and dying by your own hands “naturally causes/old age/ etc” ?

        Dying cannot be a crime since we all die sometime. Its dying without permission that seems to be the problem.

        1. I’m not advocating that suicide should be a crime. You can basically divide suicide into the cases where it’s a rational response to an intolerable and hopeless situation, like having an incurable and progressive disease, and the cases where it’s just a consequence of likely treatable mental illness.

          In neither case should it be a crime, though for different reasons.

          At the same time, we need to recognize that people who are depressed to the point of being suicidal are not necessarily mentally competent to make those sorts of decisions.

          1. Okay. I get the mentally incompetent position. Then that person needs to be given Due Process to “declare” them mentally incompetent and the state now has jurisdiction and protective power of that person for a period of time. That never happened.

            Its not in keeping with our Constitution to say that someone “should” be mentally incompetent without Due Process and then act as if they are under state control (i.e. prosecuting someone for “encouraging” suicide).

            That would be like saying some person “should” be locked up for a crime but they haven’t yet, so the state will act as if they are a felon. That is pretty much the antithesis of how our Constitutional Democratic Republic is set up.

            1. We’re not talking about the state treating you as mentally incompetent, but rather the state taking notice that somebody took advantage of somebody elses mental incompetency.

              Which is a reasonable thing to take notice of even if they’re not around to be institutionalized or put under some sort of restraining order after a due process legal proceeding.

              1. He’s dead. How does anyone know what his actual mental state was? Texts, blah blah blah. Texts lose all sorts of context, which is why people put 🙂 after some texts to avoid confusion of the context.

                You people are making assumptions to back up your dislike of suicide.

                He was legally responsible for his own actions, just like the rest of us who are not declared incompetent.

                1. For once I agree with lc1789. Once the law starts adding Heisenberg uncertainty, where the State can decide after the fact which interpretation was valid at the time, it is no longer Rule of Law but Rule of Men.

                  The only clarity is for the State to either take charge by due process or to butt out. If someone cannot be trusted with a gun or with an exhaust pipe — lock them up under State control. Otherwise don’t lay responsibility on people after the fact.

                  1. A broken script is right once a day.

                    1. A poor script is still a poor script.

                    2. You’re poor and broken?

      3. suicide is not a crime in Massachusetts.

        1. Great! So no 1A crime because there was no underlying crime involving the voluntary death of another.

  3. I’ll toot my own horn to note that the court drew the same distinction I did back when this story first broke — there’s a fairly substantial material difference between merely advising and counseling someone on a potential future course of action and actively commanding them on the spot to resume something that they are trying to desist from. This is no more of a slippery slope on free speech than the Brandenburg v. Ohio “imminent lawless action” test (50 anniversary this year, BTW) was.

    1. But for that, I’d agree that she should have walked… into a life of being despised by all who knew her history, but walked.

  4. At the time of the illegal act, the victim was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Would she have gone free if she had simply pleaded the 5th?

  5. Even assuming 1A allows you to act like this, there is a compelling state interest. So, good conviction.

    1. Libertarians think that the state does not have the power to control when you die.

      Since the constitutions control general government power, there is no enumerated power to prevent people from killing themselves.

      There is a 1A protection specifically listed to prevent government from criminalizing speech and the written word.

      1. Well, good thing I am not a libertarian.

        IA was designed to protect political speech from Congress. See, its the first word “Congress”.

        1. We know that you’re not a Libertarian.

          Volokh is linked to Reason which is known as a Libertarian website. That evidently does not matter.

          The 14A made “Congress shall not” in the 1A a moot point.

          All federal citizens rights become rights of state citizens. Free speech and press are some of those rights.

          1. You have a funny screen name for someone who thinks the incorporation doctrine improved things.

            1. Well, Bob from Ohio, screen names are like assholes, everyone has one.

          2. Where in the Bill of Rights do you find anything about the right to kill yourself? Because the government of limited powers bit was never incorporated over to the states, absent you occasional federal courts oddity.

            You get less textualist every day!

            1. Poor Sarcastr().

              Not a fan of how the Constitution works, eh?

              1. Based on your gun posts, you’re not a fan of how the Constitution currently works, actually.

                But limited federal powers has never been incorporated against the states, and there is no right to suicide in the Constitutional text. If you want to make a living constitution argument, I’m all ears, but that doesn’t seem your usual bag.

                1. Perhaps the act of suicide potentially denies to one’s self the benefit of due process.

                2. Sacastro…Typical troll.

                  Loses this argument because script does not allow any critical thought, so reverts to some other completely different topic to not prove its points.

                  1. Script? Oh, you’re one of those neo-objectivist npc types, how embarrassing for you.

                    I’m noting your own inconsistencies; trying to cover with bluster won’t fool too many around here.

                    Also, I don’t think I lost anything like an argument when your rejoinder is not actually an argument:
                    ‘Not a fan of how the Constitution works, eh?’

            2. Where in the Bill of Rights do you find anything about the right to kill yourself?

              Where in the Constitution do you find anything about the government being authorized to prevent you from doing so?

    2. What’s the compelling state interest?
      A person’s right to control the way in which his life ends seems like the essence of personal liberty.
      Any political system grounded on that principle has no compelling interest in a decision to commit suicide.

      The defendant in this case was not engaged in commercial speech, and was not encouraging or assisting the putative here in his attempt to commit an illegal act. She stated her opinion. And he was the adult in the situation, and therefore, legally, should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the ramifications of the act.

      MAYBE this case calls for a JD case with mental health counseling as part of the disposition; but, trying her as an adult, giving her a felony conviction, and over a year in prison, is way out of line.

      1. Suicide is self murder, a State can forbid that because preservation of life of its citizens is the first and highest duty of government.

        Suicide is not liberty, its mere license. Suicide once tolerated just leads to “assisted” suicide and then to actual murder.

        1. That is NOT a duty of any US government entity. It is certainly not a Constitutional power.

          The fact that you cannot tell the difference between suicide and murder, means that you are just sad.

        2. re: “preservation of life of its citizens is the first and highest duty of government”

          Citation, please? Because that would seem to outlaw a great many other things that we think society in general and government in particular should prioritize.

          1. Preamble, in which the purpose of the entire thing is stated:

            We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

            I mean, it’s outside the articles (and thus unenforceable), all very fluffy, and quite subjective in what it actually means, but “keeping folks alive” isn’t a dramatic stretch of intention.

            1. Oh, I’m not saying that keeping people alive isn’t a priority – only that there is no evidence for the quite extreme claim that it must but the “first and highest” priority.

              To name just a few, providing for the common defense includes the obligation to put soldiers into harm’s way. Securing the blessings of liberty includes allowing people the liberty to do self-destructive things like driving cars and parachuting. Establishing justice means (at least in our current society and the time of the Founders) putting some people to death.

              More to the point, Bob still hasn’t provided any support for even his weaker claim that suicide criminalization is a proper role of government.

            2. Just because the Founders formed the United States of America to protect Americans from invaders, create a place for people to thrive, and protect religious liberty does not mean that they wanted the state to keep people from deciding when they want to die.

              That is why you will never find a citation in the Constitution to back up that state power. There isn’t one.

              Imagine the state create some law that it could take your property if you gave up and died from some disease before they said you could die. The Founders never authorized any state power anything close to that.

              1. @loveconstitution1789

                That is why you will never find a citation in the Constitution to back up that state power. There isn’t one.

                As I said, it’s subjective and all, but “government has a duty to preservation of life” isn’t a stretch. Even if you don’t agree with that interpretation, you should still be able to acknowledge it.

                That said, if we’re pivoting from “duty of government” to “power of state”, that’s easy:

                The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

  6. “MA’s involuntary manslaughter statute does not do that work, and using it in this case circumvents the fact that the legislature chose not to make encouragement of suicide a specific, stand-alone criminal offense.”

    If the legislature agrees, then it can change the law. I doubt it agrees.

    1. The legislature shouldn’t have to change the law because the acts described clearly did not meet the elements of the law. Per the article above, involuntary manslaughter is “[a]n unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendants’ wanton or reckless conduct”. Per the prosecution’s own theories, Carter’s actions were not unintentional.

      1. The highest Court in Massachusetts disagrees with you.

        1. Good thing they are wrong a lot and reversed by higher courts.

          Bob’s justification for arguments he cannot back up come down to- corrupt judges refusing to follow the Constitution said so.

          1. They are following the Constitution.

          2. Poor Bob.

            He no read Constitution well.

            He things judges do no wrong.

            Good thing Bob has no power.

            1. “He things judges do no wrong.”

              LOL, that sure is me.

              1. Some day Bob, you will provide any citation in any US or state Constitution that gives the state authority to prevent suicide.

        2. No, as near as I can tell, the “highest Court in Massachusetts” simply ignored that element of the crime.

          1. +100

      2. Per the prosecution’s own theories, Carter’s actions were not unintentional.

        Isn’t this confusing the intentionality of the conduct itself with the intentionality of the result? Arguing the former does not necessarily implicitly concede the latter.

        Suppose I fire a gun into my own car, which I believe is completely empty (maybe I really hate my car and am intentionally destroying it so I have an excuse to buy a new one). As it turns out, someone broke into my car and was sleeping in the backseat. They die.

        I intended to fire the gun–no doubt about it. That’s the conduct. I didn’t intend to kill.

        1. I don’t think that’s confusing intentionality at all.

          I grant that you could argue that she intended to speak but did not intend for him to follow her advice. But that’s not what the prosecution argued. They argued that she intended to cause him to kill himself – that she intended both to speak and to achieve the result.

          Note: I make no claim here about whether the prosecution’s claim was right. I merely state that assuming they were right, they contradicted what seems like a pretty important element of the crime that was actually charged.

  7. The author’s last paragraph requires more of an explanation. If a legislature wants to make encouragement of suicide a crime, then it just has to pass a law making encouragement of suicide a crime. If it does so, why does it have to do the “hard work” of assessing the appropriate mental state of the person committing suicide and the one encouraging him/her?

    BTW, is suicide a crime in Massachusetts? If so, why couldn’t the defendant have been charged with aiding and abetting that crime?

    1. I think the hard work is determining the requisite mental state. Is it strict liability? Specific intent? Recklessness?

      Here’s a couple scenarios. Which are crimes?

      1) Suppose an individual, who has chronic severe pain due to a bad car accident, tells a friend that he just cannot deal with the pain anymore. The friend offhandedly says, “Well, you’re always going to have this pain, so either you have to accept it or just kill yourself.”

      The individual does so and leaves behind a note, thanking the friend for their encouragement as they wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.

      2) Same situation, but suppose this time the friend genuinely believes that life is not worth living if dealing with chronic pain. The friend says they would kill themselves in that situation, and encourages the individual to do so. Deceased leaves behind same note thanking the friend.

      3) Same individual, but this time posts on an internet forum dealing with pain management. A troll says, “Just kill yourself, pussy.” Individual commits suicide, and leaves behind a note blaming the troll’s screenname.

      4) Same as #3, but this time the troll just continuously insults the poster without referencing suicide in any way. A second troll chimes in and says “lol yeah just kill yourself.” Note largely blames the first poster, but says the second troll put them over the edge.

      1. None.

        The woman here did much more than express an opinion. She was involved in the process, pushing him while he was in the process.

        1. Sure, but I took OP’s point to be the legislature can simply state something like, “It shall be a crime for a person to encourage another to commit suicide.”

          There’s hard work to be done in crafting language that gets at what you’re trying to criminalize.

  8. I think you’re scratching the surface of a much bigger issue for which there is not a satisfactory answer (but there is an answer).

    Many criminals experienced trauma, usually environmental and sometimes physical. Thus it is not uncommon for a criminal to seek leniency because of a horrible childhood. While likely true their own suffering got them to where they are, we impose a somewhat idealized view of free will. If we excuse people because of their damage caused by others, we must let many dangerous people go free and there is no objective endpoint.

    Accordingly I don’t think Carter’s mental state would/should matter (as long as she is not incompetent).

    Free will is an issue raised in relation to the right to not answer police questions or to deny a voluntary search. Generally we insist the target of police had free will, despite mental weakness or belief they lacked free choice.

    In statutory rape cases, we hear of judges imposing a lighter sentence where victim is said to have been an instigator. The law suggests that is wrong. I think this situation is in the same neighborhood as your proposal.

    /1

    1. In these situations, there may be unfairness by imposing an almost absolute presumption of free will upon an accused. But it is practically necessary and, in most cases, just. At the same time we don’t impose such burden upon a victim — and there’s no doubt that Roy was a victim. I see no unfairness in the dichotomy. Was he a victim of manslaughter? While the statute here isn’t the best fit, I think there is no doubt about her preying on a vulnerable person. Did she overpower his free will? It’s arguable, especially as we lean toward an idealized view of free will. As explained above, I think the focus on that is wrong however. She knew he was vulnerable and acted with intent on that basis with repeated pressure at his weakest moment. I see no stretch or injustice holding her culpable for that.

      /end

  9. 1. What a great case for Crim Law profs to use.

    2. The putative victim was the adult in the room, and therefore should bear the legal responsibility for the act.
    This case would be interesting if the roles were reversed: an adult–who has established emotional control over a minor encourages and facilitates the minor in killing herself–but this case isn’t close, to me. There should have been no adult charges against the girl, much less a felony conviction.
    I am a former prosecutor; I am not sure what point the prosecutor was trying to make with this filing.

  10. “Relatedly, if Roy’s will was under a cloud, what about Carter’s? ”

    Again, I ask the analogous question: If a drunk woman is ‘under a cloud’ and thus not responsible for assenting to sex, what about her drunk sexual partner? Under the ‘cloud’ theory, how do you convict a man of sexual assault or rape if he was drunk and unable to think clearly? Or does this ‘cloud’ only shadow females, and not males?

  11. I’m confused about the unintentional prong. She clearly intended to cause his death. Can someone be convicted of intentionally causing a death when they intentionally did? Is it just a higher than required mental state?

    1. I think it does just come down to the lower requirement of proof of mental state. We can find many convictions where factually it appears the death was intended, but a jury convicted for involuntary manslaughter only because the intent wasn’t proven by a reasonable doubt.

  12. Why wasn’t she charged with murder? If she legally caused his death, intentionally, that’s murder.

    1. Assuming that it was not prosecutorial discretion, it’s probably because murder is defined as killing “another.” By definition, you cannot murder yourself. That’s suicide.

      If suicide was a crime under MA law, then the theory would be that she was an accomplice to the suicide (i.e., she had the specific intent to have him commit the crime of suicide). But that would still not be murder.

  13. Wonder if the streisand effect ultimately will be worse for her. She could have quietly completed her sentence and have moved on with her life by now, with a new name, and an attempt to live as a non-despicable human. It seems as if she is a lost soul herself and could have benefitted from some penance and reflection time.

    But now even a victory drawn out for so many more years, blog debates, and hardened personal attitudes will likely have her poised to a life destined as (what’s the PC word for white trash these days)

    1. I’m sure Arty Cuckland will be able to help you with the PC word for white trash. He is full of knowledge like that – bigoted terms for white people and Christians that is. Why consult the urban dictionary when we have the living version of it actively commenting here!

  14. I think this is just a prime example of part of the human condition. For every tragedy we, as humans, want something or someone to be held accountable. It doesn’t matter whether that person or entity being targeted for said accountability is rationale, logical, ethical, moral, and/or legal. We just want someone/something to “pay the price”. It is a basic human reaction and emotion. Fortunately in modern society it has been tempered down to a mere whisper, but it still exists. It doesn’t make it right though that in a less civilized society the person might have not gone to jail for 15 months but instead of been strung up by a lynch mob. But, all things considered if there was going to be an outcome where someone was “accountable” this is far better than many others societies have vetted out over the course of history.

    1. The USA tended to choose the idea that people could not be strung up without some law based upon the limited and enumerated powers of government.

      The MA bureaucrats chose to create legal liability out of thin air. Why not charge the parents with a crime for letting their kid commit suicide.

      The US criminal justice system is a joke because of judges like this who refuse to intervene to limit government power.

  15. The thing about telling someone to kill themselves (or others), as I’ve always heard it explained, is that if a reasonable person wouldn’t think someone would actually do it, you can’t be responsible.

    So if you’re at a ball game and shout “kill the umpire” after a bad call, you’re not responsible if the crazy guy next to you says “you got it boss” and leaps over the fence to bite the umpire’s face off.

    This… is not like that. This is someone actively helping plan, actively encouraging, and then when the person made a decision to not do it, actively persuade them to change their mind. The reasonable person can see that telling a suicidal person, who you helped plan their suicide, to stop being a baby and finish the job, is not benign, and is malign.

    Or to put it another way… if we were talking about a robbery instead of a suicide, but the facts otherwise remained the same (encouragement, helping plan, course-correction when he tried to back-out), this would be a clear “conspiracy to commit […]” case. I don’t think her responsibility evaporates just because it’s a suicide and not a burglary.

    1. Re: your last sentence
      Why not?
      Suicide is not a crime. Therefore your analogy falls apart.
      What if he were insulin dependent diabetic, and she encouraged him to eat a dozen donuts?

      1. Analogies are not supposed to be perfect representations in every respect. They’re intended to illustrate some limited point. Here, EE’s point is about complicity in an act. Illegality is not crucial for this analogy to work and is not the point of this analogy.

        Your donut hypothetical does not contain enough facts to evaluate. We don’t know the vulnerability of the diabetic nor the acts and intent of the donut-pusher. With the right set of facts, the donut-pusher could be guilty of something.

        1. Well to keep the analogy as pure as we can: let’s assume the donut pusher is a kid working at Krispy Kreme, and the “victim” is an adult.
          In what world would the kid POSSIBLY be criminally liable?

          1. Your hypothetical doesn’t need to be pure, just fleshed out. It still doesn’t qualify as an analogy any more than the alley behind my house qualifies as an analogy to traffic problems in Mumbai. And not just because of the lack of cattle in my alleyway.

            If the Krispy Kreme kid knew the cruller consumer’s cravings, debilitating diabetes diagnosis, and showed up at his house with boxes of donuts imploring him to eat more, even as he objected…we’d be getting into the ballpark.

            If your hypo merely imagines Mr. Cruller stopping into the shop and Krispy kid selling him donuts on demand (though aware he is diabetic), that wouldn’t qualify as wanton and reckless behavior. All this shows is that different fact patterns can be evaluated on their own merit.

          2. The adult in question has a known habit of eating too many donuts, forcing them to use their emergency insulin pen or whatever. If they don’t get the injection, they’ve been known to black-out.

            The “kid” in question knows all this. They also have worked with the adult recently, and know know that, due to malice or negligence, the adult currently does not have said emergency insulin pen (prescription is being picked up later that day maybe).

            To collect on life insurance (the kid is the adult’s kid), the kid, after being dropped off at work by the adult, pressures them to take the donuts, “you’ve been super busy this week, you deserve it”. They pull all the right emotional levers and such that the parent takes the donuts. And having poor self control (which the kid knows about) the promptly scarf them down on their ride to their work. They run into problems half-way there, go for the pen… which is missing, because they haven’t refilled the prescription yet. They end up dying on the side of the road.

            1. (… continuing)

              Death ruled “accident”, kid collects life insurance, quits job at Krispy Kreme. Gets drunk and tells their best friend, a cop, about the whole thing. The cop is like “wait, I’m not sure what exact law that’s under, but you clearly manipulated the person and events such that they died. That’s gotta be something“.

              The jury, hearing how this kid knowingly manipulated their own parent into death, convicts.

              And if all that sounds contrived… well, it is. As is the actual situation being discussed. Sometimes contrived things happen.

              1. Agency, agency, agency.

                Accountability, accountability, accountability.

                In your view, we wave bye-bye to both.

                1. Not really.

                  The whole thing boils down to this:

                  Person A knows that if contrived set of actions X happens, Person B will die.
                  Person A initiates contrived set of actions X, with the intention that Person B will die.
                  Person B dies.

                  Person A has agency: they caused Person B to die. Without their deliberate, intetional actions towards Person B’s death, Person B would not be dead.
                  I am arguing that Person A also has accountability: Having reasonable expectation of Person B’s death, choosing to initiate the actions that lead to Person B’s death makes them accountable thereof.

                  This isn’t waving anything good-bye. It’st just acknowledging that we’re responsible for actions that are more complicated then “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy”.

  16. Massachusetts in relevant part defines involuntary manslaughter as “[a]n unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendants’ wanton or reckless conduct”.

    Is suicide an “unlawful killing” in Massachusetts (and, if so, is it ever prosecuted!)?

    If the killing (the suicide) wasn’t unlawful (i.e., suicide is not illegal), than the “unlawful killing” element was not met. How, then, can Carter be convicted of “involuntary manslaughter”?

    1. Because the charge was not for suicide. The charge was that Carter caused the killing of Roy by her wanton or reckless conduct. Unlawful refers to an act that is criminal and not excused by the law in some way. Suicide isn’t really excused as much as it’s simply not criminal. There is not a recognized out for driving another to suicide.

      You might have problems with this case, but imagine a case where a evil-doer indisputably overcomes the will of a person. Does the technical act of suicide excuse the evil-doer who indisputably caused them to do it? Imagine horribly abusive parents who drive a child to do end their life – are the parents culpable only for the abuse or the killing also? I think such suicides can reasonably be traced to the acts of someone else so as to qualify it as homicide by that other person.

      1. Your citations fell off.

        You people just make an assumption that people cannot possibly want to kill themselves without a puppeteer.

        No evidence of that, just a feeling mind you.

        This experiment is almost over in the USA, since some bureaucrats and lawyers cannot even pretend to follow the enumerated powers of the Constitution anymore.

        1. What does homicide have to do with enumerated powers?

  17. Remember Dr. Kevorkian and the whole assisted suicide debate? Also, under New York law teen-age Carter can now condemn her perfectly viable baby to death even as it is being delivered and that is peachy keen fine with the authorities, but if she tells the teen age jerk father to go kill himself and he does, that is serious murder?

    1. Kevorkian was doing pretty well on the legal side until he got a bit impatient with one of his customers. His gig was that he’d set up the suicide machine for you, and you had to actually activate it yourself. If you didn’t, you lived.

      Well, one of his customers either had trouble, or changed their mind at the last minute, (Depending on whose account you believed.) and he activated it for them. Which meant that it wasn’t legally assisting in a suicide, it was Kevorkian himself killing them. I’m personally convinced that he had some kind of martyr complex, and did it deliberately because he was frustrated over repeatedly winning the cases; He wasn’t going to be happy until they convicted him.

      Well, that IS how assisting in suicide has a tendency to evolve: From assisting in suicides by people with rational reasons for wanting to do it, to eventually killing people the state thinks ought to want it. Kevorkian was just the history of euthanasia condensed into one guy.

  18. Does anyone think the result would have been different if there wasn’t a last minute call for help where the guy got out of the vehicle but was convinced to re enter the vehicle? If there was no last minute chance, does she still get a 15 month sentence?

  19. I take the real concern of the OP to be a vagueness claim — the statute, as written, does not provide sufficient warning that encouraging someone to commit suicide can fall within the scope of involuntary manslaughter because. On that score, I am reminded of Justice Scalia’s response to a somewhat different vagueness argument in U.S. v. Williams:

    “Its basic mistake lies in the belief that the mere fact that close cases can be envisioned renders a statute vague. That is not so. Close cases can be imagined under virtually any statute. The problem that poses is addressed, not by the doctrine of vagueness, but by the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

  20. If one owns oneself, as I think is true, then one has the right to dispose of oneself. If one is living in slavery, for example, and has tried to rebel and escape, suicide is the ultimate freedom grant to oneself and disobedience to one’s “master.” Clearly it is a sharia type religious law (violative of the first Amendment) to make suicide criminal. It is also absurd and unenforceable against the competent and solely enforceable against the error prone and incompetent (violation of equal protection rights). The US Fed Gov has a “solicitation” statute (far more dangerous than the “conspiracy” statute which requires at least one overt act to support conviction)–under this precedent same could be widely applied to persons recommending suicide to others. One ends up in remarkably absurd places when one begins in the wrong place: here that somehow government owns you so suicide, the final freedom if all else fails, is criminal–so mentally defective children can be incarcerated for encouraging an adult to do what an adult has a fundamental right to do. If one owns oneself, one can dispose of oneself.

  21. I find the causality claims this post makes simply bizarre. From a physical causality perspective, there is no difference between person A telling person C to kill person B and person A telling person B to kill person B. In both cases, either personA has caused someone else to act as his instrument in killing person C, or person A has merely communicated a desire to someone else which the other person is free to act on or not. The causality analysis outcome should be the same in both cases. One might think one should be a criminal act and the other not. But not for reasons of causality.

    I find these causality discussions unfathomable. Consider the claim that removing a feeding tube doesn’t cause death but merely removes artificial life support and allows nature to take its course. Look at 9/11. People were living at unnaturally high elevations by means of an artificial technology. Al Qaida came and removed this technology. Nature took its course. What you’d expect would naturally happen to people hundreds of feet up in the air without an artificial technology to sustain them naturally happened. If one doesn’t cause death, how can the other? One could debate whether living that high up by artificial means lacks dignity or not, and allow one but not the other on whatever grounds one wants. But the physics seem unquestionable.

    Same here.

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