IN MASSACHUSETTS, AN emotionally troubled young man commits suicide. The state accuses the victim’s girlfriend of coercing him to kill himself through a campaign of relentless psychological abuse. Prosecutors point in particular to a barrage of text messages urging the boyfriend to end his life, and berating him cruelly when he hesitated.
That was the scenario when Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Conrad Roy, who died from inhaling carbon monoxide as Carter listened remotely by phone. Carter was convicted in 2017 and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Now, just eight months after the Supreme Judicial Court upheld Carter’s conviction, the scenario repeats itself in the case of Alexander Urtula. The Boston College senior jumped to his death from the top of a Roxbury parking garage on May 20, just 90 minutes before his graduation ceremony. On Monday, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins accused Urtula’s girlfriend, Inyoung You, of having driven him to suicide with thousands of text messages, many urging him to take his own life and saying the world would be better without him.
The two cases aren’t identical. One difference is that You, unlike Carter, was physically present when her boyfriend died. According to the DA’s statement announcing the indictment, You had been tracking Urtula’s location and came to the garage, where she watched as he jumped to his death. Another difference — again, according to the DA — is that You allegedly abused Urtula not only “verbally and psychologically,” but also “physically.” What sort of physical abuse might have occured is unclear; Rollins’s office provided no details, and says none will be forthcoming until You is arraigned.
Maybe those differences will loom larger as more facts come out. But they were downplayed by Rollins, who mentioned each one only in passing. The DA’s focus was not on You’s physical actions, but on her speech — on the words she communicated to her boyfriend.
“In the two months prior to his May 20 death, the couple exchanged more than 75,000 text messages, of which Ms. You sent more than 47,000,” Rollins told reporters. “Many of the messages display the power dynamic of the relationship. . . [You] had complete and total control over Mr. Urtula both mentally and emotionally. Her texts included repeated admonitions for Mr. Urtula to ‘go kill himself’ [and] ‘go die.’”
If even a fraction of what prosecutors allege about You is true, she was a monster — cold-blooded, heartless, and manipulative. They claim she was only too aware of his “spiraling depression and suicidal thoughts,” and took advantage of his weakness to overwhelm his will to live with nonstop texts about suicide. In making that argument, Rollins has adopted the framing of the SJC, which affirmed the conviction of Carter on the grounds that her words had “overwhelmed whatever willpower the. . . victim had to cope with his depression.”
Yet however vicious You may have been, is it reasonable to cast her behavior — her words — as manslaughter? There is no shortage of couples enmeshed in toxic relationships, or of people saying wildly abusive things to partners they supposedly care about. Suicide has become a leading cause of death among teens and young adults, for reasons still far from clear. Will it really help if prosecutors take to claiming that young men who kill themselves were actually victims of homicide committed by girlfriends with cellphones?
The death of Alexander Urtula was a tragedy. It left family and friends bereft. It also left behind more questions than answers. One of those questions is whether someone as accomplished and admired as Urtula — a gifted biochemistry student who was active in the campus Philippine Society and had landed a research job in a New York hospital — had truly relinquished “complete and total control” over his free will to the 21-year-old he was dating.
Urtula “taught taekwondo to children, volunteered for three years at a food bank, and was a member of the tennis club and the medical science club at his high school,” the Boston Globe reported. A pre-med student described turning to Urtula regularly for advice, saying his friend was the very model of “a leader and a mentor.”
None of this is meant to minimize the effect of verbal or domestic abuse, or deny the terrible things words can lead to. And it is important to reiterate: Many of the facts in the case are still unknown.
Nevertheless, our law protects all kinds of grotesque and evil speech — including speech that may feed people’s worst impulses. Potentially lethal words are easy to find: They exist in print and online, in published books and private letters, on TV and in films. Under the First Amendment, we tolerate a vast range of expression, including the expression of ideas that may drive bad or troubled persons to do something horrendous. We tolerate them not because we are oblivious to the power of words, or indifferent to the pain they can cause. But because we know the dangers of the slippery slope: If tweet X or text Y can be made illegal today, the time will come when any unpopular, disturbing, or controversial message can be criminalized.
It is not the American way to imprison people for bad words. There is a price to be paid for adhering to that principle, but there’s a heavier price to be paid for abandoning it. Perhaps Inyoung You was an unrelenting maniac who kept hounding her boyfriend to kill himself. As a matter of conscience and morality, his blood may be on her hands. But as a matter of law? That’s far from clear.