Manslaughter conviction for texts: When do words become crimes?

In a recent legal decision igniting fierce debate, a Massachusetts judge ruled 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 of someone via social media. Because bullying on social media is often insidious and invisible to adults, schools and parents are still trying to get a handle on how to stop it.

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 her boyfriend Conrad Roy when he killed himself in a parking lot in July 2014 but communicating with him via text message, legal experts expected an acquittal.

Troubled teens who met on a Florida vacation several years ago, Roy and Carter discovered they lived about an hour apart in Massachusetts. Their relationship persisted largely online where they shared their personal struggles. When Roy first mentioned suicide, Carter advised him to seek help but eventually endorsed his plan. In text messages revealed during the trial, Carter assured Roy that “everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on.”

But where the judge felt Carter crossed a legal line was what she texted Roy on the night he died. As he was pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck, the 18-year-old began to feel ill and climbed 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 contributed to Roy’s suicide. He said 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.’ ”

Free speech advocates argue Carter’s words should not be blamed for Roy’s death, that suicide is an act of free will.

“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,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “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. In 2013, police charged two girls in Polk County, Fla., with aggravated stalking in connection with the suicide of a 12-year-old classmate, Rebecca Sedwick. The pair had fallen out with Rebecca and used social media to bully her. After her death, one posted, “Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF.”

The arrests earned international attention, but police dropped the felony charges a month later. One of the girl’s mothers sued, maintaining her daughter’s rights were violated by a police detective. However, a jury just last month ruled for police, saying no violation occurred.

The highly publicized 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, a recent Irish immigrant to America, also led to felony charges against five of her classmates. Despite calls for jail time, the felony charges were dropped, and the teens walked out of court with community service and probation.

Both Phoebe and Rebecca suffered from depression, as had Roy. But the judge did not seem to regard Roy’s mental health history as a mitigating factor in his ruling against Carter, who faces up to 20 years in prison.

Legal experts caution that this verdict, if it stands, elevates words, even sent via text to someone miles away, to actions. Parents and schools have to stress to kids now that cruel social media posts may also be criminal.

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