"Now or never": Teen who egged on boyfriend to kill himself convicted of involuntary manslaughter

I can’t decide if the verdict’s too harsh or too lenient. I wrote about the case in 2015 and Jazz has written about it more recently. This WaPo story from two years ago has all the background you’ll need, but read it on an empty stomach. It’s not the gore that sickens, as there is no gore. Death was by suffocation. It’s the cruelty and exploitation of a vulnerable beloved. This is a monster in the dock, an Iago in the flesh, so obviously so that she asked for a bench trial rather than face the wrath of a jury. Didn’t matter. Verdict: Guilty.

Was the verdict too harsh? Michelle Carter wasn’t present for Conrad Roy’s suicide. She was on the phone, many miles away. She encouraged him repeatedly to do it, and crucially, after he’d finally rigged a carbon monoxide feed to the cab of his pick-up truck, she told him to get back inside when he got cold feet and hopped out. He did so and died. But in the end, he had agency. There are examples under the law where mere words are criminally actionable — the mob boss who orders a hit, the cult leader who encourages his disciples to kill, the nut who utters a “true threat” against his target — but the law worries about those cases because the speaker himself is reasonably presumed to be capable of violence. No one thinks Carter was going to try to kill Roy if he hadn’t done it himself. What she’s guilty of, essentially, is a form of insidious psychological bullying. Her persistence was grotesque and unusual, but if Carter is guilty of involuntary manslaughter for doing nothing more than egging Roy on, a standard of lesser criminal liability for lesser bullies may develop from that. If you tweet “kill yourself” at someone whom you believe to be suicidal, is that a crime? What if you tweet it repeatedly for several days? What if the person’s a friend, who trusts you, rather than a stranger? What if, instead of tweeting, you encourage him/her to pull the trigger in a more intimate way, like, say, in a phone call? At some point the First Amendment will protect lesser transgressors. It may even end up protecting Carter, with this verdict tossed on appeal.

On the other hand, was the verdict too lenient? “Involuntary manslaughter” has always seemed like a strange charge for a case where the most horrifying thing about the defendant was the doggedness of her intent. There’s logic to it: The touchstone is “wanton or reckless conduct,” defined as “actions [that] created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another,” which fits what happened here. Setting aside the not-so-minor point that Carter didn’t undertake any “actions” apart from her flapping her gums, though, why go for manslaughter when you could have conceivably nabbed her on conspiracy to commit murder instead? From a local legal website:

Criminal conspiracy is an agreement by two or more persons to commit an unlawful act, and is a punishable crime in Massachusetts with potentially severe consequences. While some states are more stringent when it comes to requiring prosecutors to prove the elements of conspiracy, Massachusetts law is fairly simple and certainly not complex. In order to show prove conspiracy in Massachusetts, the prosecutor must show three elements. First, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant joined an agreement or plan that involved him and at least one other individual. Second, the prosecutor must show that the purpose of the agreement the defendant entered in to was to do something criminal or unlawful. Finally, the prosecutor must show that the defendant joined the conspiracy knowing of the plan and intending to carry out the unlawful act. While some states also require an overt act to be proved, meaning the prosecutor must show that the defendant also took some step towards carrying out the conspiracy, Massachusetts court have long discredited this approach. In addition, a prosecutor can use circumstantial evidence to prove a conspiracy charge, making convictions even easier to obtain.

As noted, a stumbling block to a conspiracy conviction in many states is the requirement of an “overt act” to further the conspiracy. That’s what separates mere talk about doing a bad thing from more sinister efforts to actually do a bad thing. But … Massachusetts doesn’t have that requirement, which makes conviction much easier. One wrinkle in nailing Carter on conspiracy, I would think, is that you’d need to treat Roy’s suicide not as a suicide but as a murder — of himself. But that seems like less of a leap legally than trying to make a manslaughter charge stick based on nothing more than verbal encouragement. It may be that prosecutors declined to charge her with this because of the third element of the crime, requiring that the defendant joined the conspiracy knowing of the plan “and intending to carry out the unlawful act.” Again, no one believes that Carter was a physical threat to Roy’s life. If she wasn’t prepared to “carry out” his murder herself if need be, does that mean conspiracy won’t lie?

If you don’t like conspiracy, how about accessory before the fact?

Whoever aids in the commission of a felony, or is accessory thereto before the fact by counselling, hiring or otherwise procuring such felony to be committed, shall be punished in the manner provided for the punishment of the principal felon.

“Counseling” that the felony be committed is precisely what Carter did. Again, all you’d need to do to get her on this — which would carry the same sentence as murder — is establish that Roy committed murder when he killed himself. Either Massachusetts law prevents that finding, which would explain why the prosecutors didn’t charge her with this, or the state feared that a draconian sentence for a crime like accessory to murder might seem onerous to a judge or jury, especially given her age and her own allegedly fragile mental state. Overcharge her and she might walk. So they went for involuntary manslaughter instead.

Here’s the judge giving Carter thumbs down. Even if the verdict is thrown out on free-speech grounds, there’s value to this prosecution. She’ll carry the infamy of what she did forever because of the case’s notoriety. There’s some justice in that.

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