Michelle Carter, convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting Conrad Roy III, her boyfriend, to commit suicide, was sentenced this week in a landmark case making headlines nationally. This past June, Bristol County Juvenile Court, in Massachusetts, Judge Lawrence Moniz had ruled that Carter was responsible for Roy’s 2014 suicide because Roy had followed Carter’s instruction and placed himself in a “toxic environment” she had placed him in a situation that led to his suicide. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck. Carter faced up to 20 years behind bars.
Carter’s use of texting to urge her boyfriend to take his life represents a new development in interpreting and applying the law. According to this conviction, the law interpreted Carter’s actions as whispering in his ear, “kill yourself, kill yourself,” said Laurie Levenson, criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, after Carter’s conviction. The law in essence said that those words can lead someone to suicide.
Roy, 18, and Carter, 17 at the time, had been texting about death in the days and weeks leading up to the tragedy. In one message, Carter told him: “You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die.”
But Moniz focused on Roy’s final moments when he wavered, stepped out of the truck — but Carter told him, “Get back in.” The judge said although Carter knew Roy was in trouble, she took no action. “She admits in a subsequent text that she did nothing — she did not call the police or Mr. Roy’s family,” Moniz said in court. “Finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’ ”
Contrary to the opinion of the ACLU that Carter was exercising “free speech,” Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Carter sealed her own fate “through the use of her own words,” according to the Boston Globe. “The communications illustrated a deeply troubled defendant whose actions rose to the level of wanton and reckless disregard for the life of the victim,” Healy said in a statement. Healy said the verdict, which captured widespread attention, will have “national implications” and is “a clarion call that seemingly remote and distant communications will not insulate individuals from heinous acts that could rise to the level of criminal culpability.”
Something that intrigued me was how this incident relates to many young people I encounter on Google Plus who join a Community in which other young people express the desire to take their own life, and, like Michelle Carter, they encourage the act. Fortunately, the other Moderators and I have encountered this less and less, perhaps because we’ve discouraged such behavior. Some of them may also have been banned from the Community. Rather, we focus on providing understanding, support, and (realistic) hope.
I can think of some reasons why young people might encourage suicide, however. One is that it’s hard to sit with or live with someone who threatens their own life. It drains the friend or loved one emotionally to experience such despair over a period of time. People stop trying. Related to this is another reason: they feel helpless, don’t know what to say, or how to help, so they give up. A third reason is the teen fascination with death, sometimes glorifying it, romanticizing it and generally denying its finality. I can recall watching a skit put on by high schoolers at a large camp many years ago, where someone lays down to portray a “dying soldier in Viet Nam.” The actors seemed oblivious to the tragedy of their portrayal.
No matter how serious the depression or the desire to die, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Every mental health professional is obligated by law to do whatever is necessary to prevent suicide. They may not be successful, but will be held liable for not taking the necessary steps, including calling the police, who would escort the person to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Judge Moniz sentenced Michelle Carter to 2 1/2 years in prison, with the opportunity for parole in 15 months. Hopefully, what seems an extremely light sentence will, nevertheless, teach her to take responsibility for her actions.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 24 hours-a-day: 1-800-273-8255
[Sources: Lindsey Bever and Kristine Phillips, The Washington Post August 3. Picture: Matt West, The Boston Herald via AP]