Is It Involuntary Manslaughter When Text Messages Are Used to Encourage Suicide?
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By Terri L. Wilkin
Program Director for Legal Studies, APUS
On June 16, 2017, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. She was tried in juvenile court, as she was 17 at the time of the crime.
The judge found that Carter had caused the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, who had been battling depression. In July 2014, Roy committed suicide by filling his truck with carbon monoxide in a store parking lot in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The case revolved around the issue of whether or not words can kill.
Carter was indicted for involuntary manslaughter by a grand jury. She moved to dismiss the indictment of involuntary manslaughter, “asserting that the evidence was insufficient to warrant the return of an indictment for involuntary manslaughter where her conduct did not extend beyond words.” The Commonwealth responded and the judge found that there was sufficient evidence to uphold the indictment.
Carter Sent Multiple Text Messages Encouraging Carter’s Suicide
The crux of the case centered on a barrage of text messages that Carter sent to Roy urging him to commit suicide. Once Roy’s truck began to fill with carbon monoxide fumes, he got out of his vehicle, but Carter called and ordered him back into the truck.
The actual text messages can be found in the Commonwealth’s Response to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. Some of Carter’s text messages that prosecutors stated urged Roy to commit suicide included:
“You need to do it, Conrad.”
“You can’t think about it; you just have to do it.”
“Are you going to do it today?”
About a month after Roy took his own life, Carter texted a friend who testified in her trial, stating “He got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I f—–g told him to get back in.” The prosecution argued that when Roy was having second thoughts, Carter encouraged him to get back into the truck.
Historical Precedent Exists to Punish People who Urge Others to Commit Suicide
The court referred to a 201-yeaar-old case, Commonwealth v. George Bowen, 13 Mass. 356 (Mass. 1816), in which an individual talked a prisoner into hanging himself prior to the prisoner’s scheduled execution.
The court in Bowen established that “where one counseled [sic] another to commit suicide, who by reason of his advice, and in his presence, did so, the adviser was guilty of murder.”
Carter was sentenced on August 3, 2017, to 15 months in prison and five years’ probation. The judge admonished Carter during her sentencing by stating that “She did nothing. She didn’t issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’” Carter has filed an appeal and is free, pending the outcome of her appeal.
About the Author
Terri L. Wilkin graduated from the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law in May 2007. Terri is admitted to practice law in the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia, and has been admitted in the Federal United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Prior to law school, she obtained a Master of Science dual degree from the Johns Hopkins University in Leadership and Finance/Accounting. Her 26-year career with the Maryland State Police includes assignments in patrol, criminal and drug investigations, white-collar crime, intelligence work, training, the Deputy Director of the Planning and Research Division and as the Department Prosecutor. She is also a Florida Licensed Private Investigator and a managing partner in an investigative consulting firm.