Texting suicide verdict could set bad precedent, legal experts say

"This court finds that instructing Mr. Roy to 'get back in' the truck constitutes wanton and reckless conduct by Ms. Carter," the judge said.

The day after a juvenile court judge in Massachusetts convicted Michelle Carter of killing boyfriend Conrad Roy III with her words, some legal and cyber issues experts cautioned that the punishment may not fit the crime.

“I draw a line between moral and legal implications of what she did," says Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University school of law. “In terms of morality, what she did is despicable. But that doesn’t constitute manslaughter, and that’s the problem.”

Carter and Roy were teenagers when Roy, then 18, took his own life in 2014 by pumping his truck cab full of carbon monoxide. During their largely virtual relationship, which started in 2012, the two had traded some texts in which Carter urged Roy to kill himself.

“The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!” Carter wrote in one message.

But in reaching his verdict Friday, Judge Lawrence Moniz focused instead on Carter’s text message to a friend after Roy’s death.

In that text, she confessed to persuading Roy to return to his truck after he had stepped out. “Get back in,” Carter told Roy, according to the friend, who testified in court.

Tellingly, said Moniz, Carter “did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”

While Carter’s words were heartless by any definition, experts say that in this potentially groundbreaking case the letter of the law is being stretched.

“It’s true, her words caused great harm, but they didn’t kill this young man, he chose to kill himself,” says Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami school of law and vice president of the Cyber Rights Initiative.

“Clearly, this verdict reflects the outrage of a community,” she adds. “But there’s a saying in law: Hard cases sometimes make bad law. That’s true here.”

The case is likely far from over and has implications not only for the law but also society, experts say.

What’s at issue: Cyber bullying has become an increasingly dangerous by-product of the social media revolution. The issues range from the growing phenomenon of revenge porn to the long-standing practice of trolling.

But while many states have laws on the books aimed directly at those who abuse social platforms to harm others, Carter’s case was tried in a state that “does not have a standalone crime on the books for encouraging suicide,” Franks says.

In Massachusetts, an involuntary manslaughter charge can be brought when an individual causes the death of another person by engaging in behavior that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.

A law against encouraging suicide would have made the case both more straightforward and less sensationalist, Medwed says. “We probably wouldn’t be talking now if they’d had that law,” he says.

Carter could face as many as 20 years in jail. “If there had been a specific law, she might have even plead guilty,” Franks says.

Its legality aside, Medwed says the verdict may encourage parents to pay closer attention to what their children are texting to their friends.

What’s at stake: While societal outrage over Carter’s role in Roy’s suicide is understandable, if the verdict stands “the concern is that it could send a message to prosecutors to pursue cases like this,” Medwed says. “As lawyers, that makes us concerned the law is being stretched.”

Medwed adds that in theory a friend who simply expresses sympathy for a despondent friend’s desire to take their own life could soon be held liable for that death. “Don’t forget, there’s a still a big societal debate going on about assisted suicide,” he says. “This sort of verdict would imply that anyone being sympathetic to a loved one could be at fault.”

Franks agrees that the positive public takeway from this case should be “being more careful about what you say, which is not a bad thing, but we need to be concerned with the justice in this case. She’s being held accountable as if this were a homicide.”

What’s next: Carter has a chance of reversing the decision on appeal, which may or may not lead to a retrial depending on what prosecutors decide.

Both Franks and Medwed anticipate that appeal, and suggest that in that case defense attorneys will focus on the “element of causation” and attempt to decouple Carter’s comments to Roy from his decision to get back into the truck.

“There are strong grounds for appeal,” Medwed says. Adds Franks: “It would make sense to reverse.”

Franks adds that “maybe one byproduct of this case will be that the (Massachusetts) legislature will decide that they, too, need a law specific to the crime of encouraging suicide.”

That remains to be seen. There are already conflicting views of the verdict from two state organizations.

In a statement following the verdict, Massachusetts Bar Association chief legal counsel Martin Healy said “the defendant’s fate was sealed through her own words. The communications illustrated a deeply troubled defendant whose actions rose to the level of wanton and reckless disregard for the life of the victim.”

But the state's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a comment condemning the judge's decision, who concluded that a then 17-year-old girl "literally killed Mr. Roy with her words. This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. constitutions."

Michelle Carter is without question a vile human being, but the legal precedent being set here makes me deeply uncomfortable. https://t.co/OjbpNteoh4

— chrisberez (@chrisberez) June 16, 2017

Regardless of what happens next in this case, Franks argues that at the very least, society should take a hard look at itself and revisit the way we interact. There's evidence that some of that soul searching is already taking place on social media, where Twitter erupted with disparate reactions to the verdict.

Most hued either toward absolute approval of the decision ("SO glad Michelle Carter was found guilty. Can't believe there are some people who believe she did nothing wrong," tweeted @hey_christinaxo) to profound concern about its implications ("Michelle Carter is without question a vile human being, but the legal precedent being set here makes me deeply uncomfortable," tweeted @chrisberez).

“This shouldn’t be a matter of Michelle Carter goes to jail for manslaughter, and the rest of us are off the hook,” Franks says. “That a girlfriend would encourage a boyfriend to kill themselves should cause us to ask what this says about our culture.”

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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