Michelle Carter Conviction: Words Alone May Finally be Enough

In the wake of the Michelle Carter decision, many questioned how Ms. Carter’s actions amounted to involuntary manslaughter. While the facts of this case have been found to satisfy involuntary manslaughter, Carter’s actions may have been more appropriately and effectively handled by cyberbullying laws.

On June 16, Judge Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County Juvenile Court found Ms. Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging and failing to help Conrad Roy III as he committed suicide. Katharine Q. Seelye & Jess Bidgood, Guilty Verdict for Young Woman Who Urged Friend to Kill Himself, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017). Mr. Roy had previously attempted suicide but decided against it. Id. On July 12, 2014, when Mr. Roy attempted suicide again, Ms. Carter tried to relieve his doubts about the suicide and talked him through how, where, and when to commit the act. Id.; See also Andrew Tarantola, Death by Text: How the Michelle Carter Case will Impact Free Speech, Engadget (June 22, 2017). Specifically, Judge Moniz gave weight to a text message sent by Ms. Carter three months after Mr. Roy’s suicide which states “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared,” and that she then instructed him “to get back in.” Id.

What Constitutes Involuntary Manslaughter?
In Massachusetts, to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a person must have engaged in wanton or reckless conduct likely to cause substantial harm to another, which unintentionally caused the death of another person. Commonwealth v. Carter, 52 N.E. 3d 1054, 1060 (Mass. 2016).  In a decision to deny Ms. Carter’s motion to dismiss the grand jury indictment, the Supreme Judicial Court held that involuntary manslaughter can be proved through either “(1) wanton or reckless conduct, or (2) wanton or reckless failure to act.” Id.  The court interprets wanton or reckless conduct to be based on the “defendant’s specific knowledge or on what a reasonable person should have known” about the “gravity of danger of the situation.” Id. Judge Moniz found the phone call between Ms. Carter and Mr. Roy constituted wanton and reckless conduct because she knew he was attempting to commit suicide. Seelye & Bidgood, supra. The judge also stated that Ms. Carter had a duty to alert authorities or Mr. Roy’s family as her communication evidenced her knowledge that Mr. Roy was in danger. Id.

Legal Effect of the Michelle Carter Decision
This is the first time in Massachusetts that a court has ever found a phone call, or just words, to be enough to warrant an involuntary manslaughter conviction. Wanton and reckless conduct has historically required a physical action, such as punching someone who ultimately falls, hits his head, and dies. Commonwealth v. Sheppard, 537 N.E. 2d 583, 585 (Mass. 1989).  Further, it is unprecedented to hold someone accountable for another’s decision to commit suicide because suicide is typically seen as an act of free will. Seelye & Bidgood supra. If words spoken by an aggressor are sufficient cause for an involuntary manslaughter conviction, then prosecutors may try to prosecute defendants for a variety of behavior which the Commonwealth did not intend to criminalize as involuntary manslaughter. The case will likely be appealed on the grounds of this causation element but the Massachusetts Legislature may also consider whether this behavior should be criminalized under cyber-bullying laws. Marco Della Cava, Texting Suicide Verdict Could Set Bad Precedent, Legal Experts Say, USA Today (June 17, 2017, 7:29 PM).

Factors to Consider, Cyberbullying
There have been many cases in recent years of teenagers bullying, harassing, or taunting other teenagers, which resulted in the victim committing suicide. However, this is the first time that a “bully,” someone who has had a negative influence on another through harassment or intimidation, has been convicted of a charge such as manslaughter. Typically, if children or teenagers are to be charged with a crime in relation to their bullying, the charge is harassment or bullying. These charges do not carry as harsh sentences as charges such as involuntary manslaughter, making the likelihood of sending a juvenile to prison for extended periods of time less likely. Currently, over 20 states have some sort of cyberbullying law on the books.

But is criminalizing children and teens the answer to the cyberbullying epidemic? The criminal justice system may not have the resources or reach to stop cyberbullying related deaths. Educational institutions and parents may have more of an impact when addressing cyberbullying. In Massachusetts, while there is no criminal cyberbullying statute, schools are required to provide information to students about the dangers of bullying, including what sanctions are in place, and take swift action when necessary. Children need to be taught and molded from a young age about bullying, why it is wrong, and the effects it can have on people, including suicide. Criminalizing after the fact, when children have not been taught the severity and impact of cyberbullying, will not teach children and teens the problem solving and interpersonal skills they are lacking.  Further, the fear of educational and parental sanctions may have more impact on children and teens, since most may not think of the likelihood of a criminal sanction on a day to day basis. The threat of being suspended or expelled, or worse, grounded by their parents from social activities, is something children and teens think about.

Michelle Carter is due to be sentenced on August 3 and her conviction holds a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison because she was convicted as a Youthful Offender. Courts and prosecutors need to consider what direction they want to take cyberbullying and bullying cases in the future and the effects that their decisions will have on the way children and teens appreciate the consequences of their actions.

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