Is Telling Someone to Commit Suicide a Crime?
That's the question at the heart of the trial of Michelle Carter in Massachusetts, who prosecutors say repeatedly told her boyfriend to kill himself via text message until he finally went through with it.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
If his talk of suicide was just a cry for help, the help Michelle Carter gave her boyfriend Conrad Roy III was lethal.
Carter's messages carried the same tone anyone would in trying to nudge a boyfriend dragging his feet to get a job, or go back to school. "There is no way you can fail," she wrote.
But 17-year-old Carter wasn't encouraging her 18-year-old boyfriend to find work. She was goading him into killing himself, prosecutors say.
On July 13, 2014, Roy's body was found in his truck behind a K-Mart in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The windows were rolled up. He had been running a combustible engine inside and had successfully poisoned himself with carbon monoxide.
When, midway through the endeavor, Roy got out of the truck and called Carter, she told him to finish the job. "Get back in," she said, according to a text message in which she recounted the incident to a friend and lamented his death was her fault.
Though Roy deleted Carter's texts from his phone, per her request, police were able to recover them along with other messages she sent during this period.
Prosecutors at the Bristol County District Attorney's office say Carter's texts are proof that Carter was "engaging in a course of wanton or reckless conduct," and she's being charged with involuntary manslaughter. Though she's being tried in juvenile court, she could face up to 20 years in state prison. Her attorney Joseph Cataldo says her messages are protected under the First Amendment, and he's asking for a judge to throw the case out.
Civil liberties experts are worried about the implications this case may have on freedom of speech, and if saying "go kill yourself" could one day equate to manslaughter. In a state where suicide is not illegal, can you murder someone without ever laying a finger on them? Prosecutors in this case say you can. In an effort to keep the manslaughter charges on the table and the case against Carter moving forward, they've released Roy and Carter's messages in all of their eerie detail.
"Tonight is the night. It's now or never," Carter wrote in one of her many messages to Roy, apparently frustrated that his suicide plan had been all talk and no action, despite her repeated calls to get the job done. "The time is right and you're ready."
Court documents show she had helped him research portable combustion engines online. Take some Benadryl, she told him, and he'd be dead in a half hour. "If you do it right and listen to what that guy said in the article, it will 100 percent work. It's not that hard to mess up," she wrote.
Carter assured Roy that his family would be OK with his death, and that he would enjoy the afterlife. "Everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on. They won't be in depression. I won't let that happen. They know how sad you are, and they know that you are doing this to be happy and I think they will understand and accept it. They will always carry you in their hearts," she texted him.
"You are my beautiful guardian angel forever and ever. I'll always smile up at you knowing that you aren't far away."
"Aww. Thank you, Michelle," wrote Roy.
Carter and Roy met a few years earlier when they were both visiting family in the same town in Florida, Roy's family told the Boston Globe. Though the teenagers came from different towns in Massachusetts, they only met in person a couple of times. The rest of their relationship was carried out over phone calls and texts.
Roy tried to kill himself before, by swallowing acetaminophen—the painkiller found in Tylenol—Cataldo said in a hearing last week. In the month before Roy's death, Carter was treated at McLean Hospital for mental health issues. Cataldo says his client encouraged Roy to receive mental health treatment, too.
In fact, the defense argues that Roy wanted the couple to pull a double-suicide, Romeo and Juliet–style. Carter wasn't having it. "This was a young man who wanted to kill himself, and previously tried to kill himself, and now he is trying to get a juvenile to get her to kill herself with him," Cataldo told VICE.
Prosecutor Owen Murphy wrote in a motion that Conrad's command for Roy to get back into his truck and submit himself to carbon monoxide poisoning was not mere speech but a "verbal act instrumental in the commission of manslaughter." Her language is akin to threats, which are not protected by the First Amendment, he wrote.
In her messages, Carter told Roy that if he didn't follow through with his macabre plan, she would get him mental health care, an option Roy seemed to have given up on. "You just need to do it, Conrad, or I'm gonna get you help," she wrote.
When he didn't follow through, Carter teased him. "I bet you're gonna be like 'Oh, it didn't work because I didn't tape the tube right or something like that.' I bet you're gonna say an excuse like that... you seem to always have an excuse."
The 40-page unsealed indictment reveals how in the week before his death, Carter was insistent that he off himself, encouraging him to look elsewhere when he couldn't get the supplies he needed.
"Do you have the generator?" Carter asked.
"Not yet LOL," responded Roy.
"WELL WHEN ARE YOU GETTING IT?," Carter demanded.
"Now." he replied.
When the plan started to materialize, Carter worried that he might stall.
"You can't think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don't get why you aren't," she wrote in a message.
"I don't get it either. I don't know," wrote Roy.
"So I guess you aren't gonna do it then," wrote Carter. "All that for nothing. I'm just confused. Like you were so ready and determined."
"I am gonna eventually. I really don't know what I'm waiting for but I have everything lined up," Roy wrote back.
"No, you're not, Conrad. Last night was it. You keep pushing it off and you say you'll do it, but you never do. It's always gonna be that way if you don't take action," she scolded.
Carter worried Roy might chicken out. "You better not be bullshitting me and saying you gonna do this and then purposely get caught."
"No, none of that," Roy assured her.
Cataldo maintains Carter was simply exercising her freedom of speech and that her words do not add up to a manslaughter charge. Her messages may be disturbing, but they are not criminal, he says.
"If you find it repugnant that's fine," says Cataldo.
Carter wouldn't be the first person convicted of orchestrating a suicide remotely. William F. Melchert-Dinkel was a Minnesota nurse who, under various female aliases, enjoyed encouraging people to live-stream their own hangings, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2011 Melchert-Dinkel was found guilty of two counts under a Minnesota law that said it was illegal to "advise" or "encourage" suicide.
But those charges were overturned when, in the first half of 2014, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing "advising" or "encouraging" suicide violated the First Amendment. Later that year he was tried again, and convicted of "assisting" a suicide, a law that is still on the books in that state.
Massachusetts, on the other hand, is one of those rare states where assisting suicide is not illegal. Forty states have assisted-suicide laws on the books but the Bay State is not oneof them. Encouraging suicide is not a crime either, according to Cataldo.
That's why the state is charging Carter with involuntary manslaughter, instead. Prosecutors at the Bristol District Attorney's office say people have been convicted of similar crimes in the past, including one case in 1961 where after telling her he was going to file for divorce, Ilario Persampieri handed his drunken wife a loaded rifle and instructed her on how to pull the trigger with her feet. While she was taking off her right shoe, the rifle discharged and she died the next day. Persampieri was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
But some legal experts say that whether or not Carter's case goes to trial, the prosecution may have a difficult time drawing parallels between Roy's suicide and the death of Persampieri's wife. Persampieri handed his wife a loaded gun, but there was no physical exchange between Carter and Roy. Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, says the lack of "physical assistance" could make this a tricky case for the prosecution to try.
The larger implications of this case—that someone's language could land them with a homicide charge—is troubling to Segal, too. "If saying, 'Go kill yourself,' could get you locked up, then there would be no radio talk show hosts left," he tells me.
"There is no question that someone would have a First Amendment right to say that they think more people should commit suicide," Segal adds. But he believes the prosecution may be able build their case around the fact that Carter targeted Roy, specifically.
The prosecution, it should be noted, is arguing that Carter had something to gain from Roy's death: attention. She did not disclose her conversations with Roy to his family, and instead texted them on the night of his death, wondering if they knew where he might be. According to prosecutors, she soaked up sympathy from her friends, and held a suicide awareness fundraiser that served more as an excuse to throw a party than to benefit Roy's family or other victims.
Carter's messages seem to hint at another motivation, too. But was she really expecting Roy to be her guardian angel after this?
"He told me he would give me signs to know he was watching over me," she wrote to a friend on September 15, 2014, more than a month after his death. "I haven't seen any."
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