Is it a crime to encourage suicide through text messaging? A Massachusetts Judge decided last week, that yes, in fact, it is.
Michelle Carter, of Plainville, MA was 17 when police say she encouraged her friend, 18-year-old Conrad Roy, of Mattapoisett, to commit suicide. Roy, who had a history of mental illness, was found dead in his car behind a K-Mart in the next town over, about 60 miles south of Boston.
On July 13, 2014, Roy used a generator to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. At one point, while waiting for his moment of death, he got out of his truck and called Michelle. Roy expressed fear and uncertainty about taking his life death. Michelle responded, “Get back in the truck.”
In addition to that text message, there were dozens of other messages from Carter in the weeks leading up to his death, pressuring and encouraging him to kill himself.
In a police report, Fairhaven police Det. Scott Gordon wrote, “Carter not only encouraged Conrad to take his own life, she questioned him repeatedly as to when and why he hadn’t done it yet, right up to the point of when his final text was sent to her.”
The case is unprecedented in the state of Massachusetts and Carter’s lawyer said that he is not aware of any cases in the state “where a person who is 30 miles away is charged with committing manslaughter by text.”
Massachusetts has no statute criminalizing assisted suicide, although 40 other states do. It can, however, prohibit it under common law.
Ms. Carter’s defense team is expected to appeal the verdict. Legal experts said that it seemed to extend manslaughter law into new territory and that if it stood, it could have far-reaching implications, at least in Massachusetts.
“Will the next case be a Facebook posting in which someone is encouraged to commit a crime?” Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and Harvard Law professor, asked. “This puts all the things that you say in the mix of criminal responsibility.”
The legal issue, in this case, looks at whether or not words in and of themselves constitute assisted suicide and if text messages or other online communications are covered under the First Amendment. It’s obvious that people shouldn’t coerce someone with a known history of mental health issues to commit suicide, but what should we do if they do?
This case is now added to the long and heartbreaking list of tween and teen suicides as a direct result of cyberbullying.
Despite your opinion on the legal arguments of this case, the takeaway for parents is clear.
If Michelle Carter or Conrad Roy’s parents were using Social Judo, he might still be alive.
It is essential that today’s parents use this tool so that they can be alerted to language around suicide, bullying, and all other risky behaviors kids are talking about on their mobile devices. This couple talked directly about suicide, carbon monoxide poisoning, and depression for weeks, both via text and Twitter.
But, Conrad is dead, all of the parents involved are devastated and each has lost their child in one way or another. Michelle Carter will be sentenced on August 3, 2017. She faces up to 20 years in prison for manslaughter.
Parents can be smarter and Social Judo is the tool to help you to do just that.
Andrea Difilippo is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, nationally recognized parenting expert and Chief Parenting Officer with Social Judo.