A court case out of Massachusetts that depicts a disturbing picture of young love gone horribly wrong is gaining national attention as it raises questions about whether encouraging someone to commit suicide makes you legally responsible for that person’s death.
18-year-old Michelle Carter is facing an involuntary manslaughter charge for allegedly convincing her former boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to kill himself last summer.
Roy was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in a K-Mart parking lot. He had used a gas-powered water pump to filter the fumes into his truck. The two teens had met in 2012 while visiting relatives in Florida, and had maintained a romantic relationship via phone and the Internet.
Prosecutors say Roy had spoken of his desire to kill himself several times, and that Carter would encourage him to do so, texting him things like “You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain,” in one message, and even gave him suggestions for how to kill himself by hanging or carbon monoxide poisoning.
They also say the day that Roy killed himself, Carter told Roy to stay in the truck as the fumes began to overtake him. Adding to the suspicion that Carter knew what she was doing is the text she sent to a friend after Roy’s death expressing concern that police might go through his phone, see the messages she sent him, and come after her.
Carter’s attorney argues that his client’s messages are protected by the First Amendment as free speech, and that Roy was completely responsible for his own death because Carter took no physical actions to make him kill himself.
This isn’t the first time the issue of whether encouraging someone to commit suicide counts as assisted suicide has been in focus. Last year, a former nurse was convicted of assisting suicide for going on suicide chat forums and encouraging people to kill themselves. The decision was ultimately reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled that while assisting suicide is illegal, advising and encouraging suicide were not illegal under the law.
Do you think Carter’s messages are protected as free speech? Should encouraging or convincing someone to commit suicide be against the law?
Daniel Medwed, professor of criminal law, procedure, and evidence at Northeastern University in Boston
Larry Rosenthal, professor of law at Chapman School of Law in Orange