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Here’s what you need to know about the controversial Michelle Carter texting/suicide case

Michelle Carter, 20, was found guilty Friday of involuntary manslaughter for pushing her teenage boyfriend to kill himself in a series of text messages in 2014. (Image source: WFXT-TV screenshot)

A Massachusetts woman was found guilty Friday of involuntary manslaughter for pushing her teenage boyfriend to kill himself in a series of text messages in 2014. The landmark case raised questions about the legality of encouraging someone to end their own life. Here are the facts you need to know.

The Undisputed Facts

  • Prosecutors said Carter, then 17, sent her late boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, 18, a series of multiple text messages in 2014 urging him to commit suicide after learning of Roy’s multiple failed suicide attempts. Roy poisoned himself by inhaling carbon monoxide in his pickup truck. (CNN)
  • A friend of Carter’s testified that she told him to “get back in” the truck on the night he died. (ABC News)
  • “You just have to do it,” Carter texted Roy on the day of his suicide. “You said you were gonna do it. Like I don't get why you aren't." (ABC News)
  • Carter did not seek help or inform anyone when she learned Roy was attempting to kill himself. (CBS News)
  • The prosecution entered evidence indicating that Carter actually listened over the phone as Roy suffocated. (CNN)
  • She was tried as a juvenile since she was a minor when the alleged crime took place. (WFXT-TV)
  • Carter waved her right to trial by jury and was tried by a judge. She will be sentenced on Aug. 3. She faces up to 20 years in prison. Because of the novel legal issues presented in the case, it is likely that Carter will appeal. (NBC News)

"She called no one, and finally she did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck," Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz said in his explanation of the ruling.

Disputed Territory

  • WFXT-TV noted earlier this month that there is no law in Massachusetts “that says verbal encouragement of suicide is a crime, but a jury could, in effect, make one.”
  • It’s almost “unheard of” for a manslaughter charge to be brought against someone who was not physically present at the scene of the death in question. (CBS News)
  • Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized Moniz’s ruling on Twitter, arguing that the conviction “expands Massachusetts criminal law and imperils free speech.”

  • Segal said in a statement that “there is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide”:

Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she 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.

The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy’s death. If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth.

What it all means

According to Boston.com, cases in which an individual encourages another individual to commit suicide are rare, but raise questions about what constitutes criminal liability for someone else’s suicide.

Joseph E. Kennedy, a professor of criminal law at the University of North Carolina, told Boston.com, “Do you get to taunt a suicidal person standing at the edge of a building and scream ‘jump’ at them? The answer to that’s not clear.”

While some — such as the ACLU — have raised objections to the ruling, calling it an overreach and arguing that it threatens free speech rights, it's difficult to see Carter's behavior as anything other than criminal. Not only did Carter fail to seek help for Roy, she actively pushed a vulnerable individual who trusted her into ending his own life.

While the case is unusual, it is not unprecedented. According to Boston.com, in 2011, William Melchert-Dinkel, a nurse in Minnesota, was held criminally liable for encouraging individuals in an online chat room to kill themselves.

In 2012, a Massachusetts ballot measure that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide was narrowly defeated by voters, although the debate over such laws remains contentious there. The Providence Journal noted that Massachusetts has no law against assisted suicide.

Thus, the Carter case, which would set a precedent for making such actions criminal, could have ramifications for policy debates about legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the state. The high-profile Carter case might help sway some voters into opposition to aiding a suicide.

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