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When Words Kill

WHEN WORDS KILL

This week’s blog is departing from Thomas Law’s personal injury topics to discuss an important verdict in the so-called texting suicide case in Massachusetts. The case, and the precedent-setting verdict, are important because the scope of liability surrounding involuntary manslaughter and assisting suicide could change.

The case involves Michelle Carter, 17 at the time, and Conrad Roy III, 18, who were boyfriend and girlfriend but mostly communicated over cell phone via text. Both had mental health issues; she suffered from eating disorders, and he from depression leading to suicide attempts. In the weeks leading up to Roy’s death, Carter goaded Roy into acquiring the tools with which to end his life through carbon monoxide poisoning, and insisted he carry out his intention to end his life. On July 12, 2014, as Roy’s truck was filling with toxic fumes, he called Carter. When he stepped out of his vehicle, gasping for fresh air, Carter ordered him back into the lethal trap.

It was this phone call and Carter’s fateful instructions to Roy to get back into his truck that the Judge held broke the “chain of self-causation.” Her intervention, the Judge reasoned, created a duty on her part to help by telling him to get out of the truck or to call for help for him. She did neither. Roy’s body was found inside his truck.

INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER V. ASSISTING SUICIDE

The reason this case has created such controversy, aside from the tragic circumstances, is that Carter was convicted of ending someone’s life despite not committing an overt act, not being present at the scene of the death, and not providing the tools with which to commit the crime—unless her words constituted the deadly weapon. Massachusetts defines the crime of involuntary manslaughter as an unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as a result of defendant’s wanton or reckless conduct. The element of causation was the key legal question the Judge seemed to struggle with, and one he ultimately answered by deciding that the self-causation normally ascribed to suicide was broken and replaced by Ms. Carter’s instructions to Roy to get back in the truck. The Judge found that her words imposed a new chain of causation and became the ultimate reason for his death.

While the verdict in this case pleases those who believe that the moral culpability Carter shoulders for Roy’s death rightfully extends into legal culpability, blurring the line between moral and legal culpability can lead to problematic precedent. This case is not like previous cases where victims were bullied or shamed and committed suicide as a result. Nor was this the classic case of assisted suicide where a person/doctor provides the means (e.g. morphine, sleeping pills, etc) to a terminally ill patient to end his/her life. Many states have enacted laws to forbid these actions, i.e. to forbid assisting or encouraging or promoting suicide in any way.

Massachusetts does not have any such law, and consequently, a defendant was found guilty of homicide on the basis of words alone. Carter’s words were wanton and reckless, and her callous disregard for Roy’s life was reprehensible, but basing a conviction for homicide on words alone may be heading down a slippery slope we may not yet be prepared to travel. In the end, it may be the Massachusetts legislature which puts an end to the controversy by enacting a law against assisting suicide.

BACK HOME IN GEORGIA

Georgia has a law against assisting suicide, and it states in relevant part that:

[O.C.G.A. 16-5-5(2)]

(b) Any person who publicly advertises, offers, or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years.

(c) Any person who knowingly and willfully commits any act which destroys the volition of another, such as fraudulent practices upon such person's fears, affections, or sympathies; duress; or any undue influence whereby the will of one person is substituted for the wishes of another, and thereby intentionally causes or induces such other person to commit or attempt to commit suicide shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years.

If the tragic story of Carter and Roy had unfolded in Georgia, the legal ramifications would not have been as dramatic because Carter most likely would have been charged with assisting suicide under the above statute. But if the verdict in Massachusetts stands, then the door to a homicide charge for encouraging suicide will be opened—even in states with laws against assisting suicide. Whether this turns out to be a positive step in imposition of greater legal responsibility or a draconian chilling of free speech only time will tell.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If you or someone you love is or was the victim of assistance to the commission of attempted suicide or suicide, contact the Georgia Suicide Hotlines (912) 430-4052, 1-866-582-7763, and suicide.org website.

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