What Michelle Carter did before she said ‘get back in’ ought to be against the law
It is tempting, now that the state’s highest court has upheld a lower court’s ruling that Michelle Carter was criminally responsible for badgering Conrad Roy into killing himself, to imagine what might have happened if Carter had not said “Get back in.”
What if, instead of telling Roy to get back in his pickup truck after he left the cab that was filling with carbon monoxide, she told him to remain outside, then called 911 or his family?
What if, instead of dying in the parking lot of a Kmart in Fairhaven as a gasoline-powered water pump filled his lungs with poison, Conrad Roy was sent not to a morgue but a hospital?
We’ll never know whether the medical interventions that previously had not been able to help Roy shake his suicidal ideations and intentions might have eventually succeeded so that today he’d be just another 23-year-old guy trying to make a living.
But we do know that if Carter had not told Roy to get back into his truck and had summoned help instead of just listening on her phone as Roy died 30 miles away, she wouldn’t have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the first place.
The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.
The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.
Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.
Bristol District Attorney Tom Quinn, whose office prosecuted Carter, believes it is time for Massachusetts to join some 40 other states and create a law that explicitly makes it a crime to coerce or encourage a vulnerable person to commit suicide.
“There is a compelling state interest in protecting life and especially protecting vulnerable people,” Quinn told me. “I think legislators should give serious consideration to a law that would make coerced suicide criminal in cases that would not rise to manslaughter. There should be an alternative.”
Civil libertarians are wary of trying to fashion any such law, with some reason, fearing it would be unwieldy and could be misused by overzealous prosecutors. Fears about the criminalization of reckless speech explain why the American Civil Liberties Union was among those who filed briefs on Carter’s behalf.
But sometimes common sense has to override common law. Even before she told Conrad Roy to climb back in his truck, what Michelle Carter engaged in was not some benign form of reckless speech that needs protection. Many laws are misused. That’s not a reason to not have them.
Quinn is not talking about a law to be used against some kid yelling “go kill yourself” in a playground, or someone talking to a disabled or dying loved one about end-of-life issues. Like all laws, the devil will be in the details.
But we cannot reasonably call ourselves a civil society and allow it to be legal to aggressively pressure or coerce a vulnerable person to kill themselves. American jurisprudence has evolved by constantly recognizing the need for further protections for the most vulnerable among us.
Michelle Carter has her own issues, and I hope she gets the help she needs. She was 17 when this happened and hopefully has a long, healthier life ahead of her.
But what she said and did to Conrad Roy, even before she told him to get back in, was not just wrong. It ought to be against the law.