An involuntary manslaughter conviction turns cyberbullying from tragic to criminal

In a legal decision already being debated, a Massachusetts judge ruled today that a teenage girl who texted her boyfriend to follow through on his intent to kill himself was guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

The judge did not appear swayed by Michelle Carter's age at the time, 17, or her own history of eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and social anxieties.

Carter's conviction may be the most serious response to what is known as cyberbullying, the tormenting or teasing someone via social media. The guilty verdict raises questions about whether someone can goad or bully others to kill themselves and whether it can be done from afar. Because Carter was not with Conrad Roy when he killed himself in a parking lot in July of 2014 and was communicating with him via text message, legal experts expected an acquittal.

Troubled teens who met on a Florida vacation in 2012, Roy and Carter discovered they lived about an hour apart in Massachusetts. Their relationship largely existed online but they shared their personal struggles. According to court testimony, when Roy first mentioned suicide, Carter advised him to seek help but eventually endorsed his plan, assuring him, "everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on," and advising him on how he might die,  "hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself idk there's a lot of ways."

But where Carter crossed a legal line was when she pushed, prodded and pressured Roy the night he died. As he was pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck, the 18-year-old boy began to feel ill and got out of the vehicle. In messages, Carter admonished him, "Get back in." “You just need to do it.”

Those exhortations persuaded Judge Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County Juvenile Court that Carter's words played a key role in Roy's suicide, saying of the victim, "He breaks that chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle. He takes himself out of that toxic environment that it has become...She admits in subsequent texts that she did nothing, she did not call the police or Mr. Roy’s family. And finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’"

After Roy's death, Carter presented herself  as the grieving girlfriend, according to witnesses. She organized a fundraiser in Roy's honor and wrote on Facebook, Even though I could not save my boyfriend’s life, I want to put myself out there to try to save as many other lives as possible.”

Her attorneys argued Carter's words should not be blamed for Roy's death, that suicide is an act of free will.

In a statement tonight, Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said, “Mr. Roy’s death is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution. There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide. Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words. This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions."

While online bullying is widely condemned, it's seldom treated as a serious crime. Another high-profile case of cyberbullying and its role in a youth suicide was also in the news recently.

In 2013, police in Polk County, Fla., charged two girls for aggravated stalking in connection with the suicide of a 12-year-old classmate, Rebecca Sedwick. After Rebecca jumped to her death from a silo, police learned about the girl's stormy relationship with Katelyn Roman, 12, and Guadalupe Shaw, 14. After Rebecca's death, Guadalupe posted, "Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF."

The arrests of  the two young girls earned international attention, but the felony charges were dropped a month later. Then, Katelyn's mother sued, maintaining her daughter's rights were violated by the arrest. In May, a jury ruled against the family and said there was no violation of the girl's rights.

The highly publicized 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts also led to felony charges against five of her classmates, but those charges were reduced to misdemeanors and probation.

Both Phoebe and Rebecca had grappled with depression before their suicides, as had Roy. But the judge did not seem to regard Roy's history as a mitigating factor in the case against Carter.

Should it have been?

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.