The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
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.