The Michelle Carter case — in which the Plainville woman was sentenced to 15 months behind bars for goading 18-year-old Conrad Roy III into committing suicide, via cellphone calls and text messages — exposed a significant gray area in the Massachusetts criminal code. The specific crime a Bristol County judge convicted her of was involuntary manslaughter, and even making that charge stick required two trips to the Supreme Judicial Court. One reason for all the legal brinkmanship: Unlike most other states, the Commonwealth doesn’t have a law that explicitly defines coerced suicide and makes it a crime.
One of the lessons of the tragic case: Massachusetts needs a new statute to charge individuals who incite, coerce, or manipulate someone else into committing or attempting suicide. Last week, state legislators introduced a bill — known as “Conrad’s Law” — that would penalize such coercion with up to five years in prison.
Massachusetts is one of just 10 states that don’t penalize suicide coercion, according to state Senator Barry Finegold, who filed the bill with state Representative Natalie Higgins. Their bill would set out clearly what suicide coercion is — and, just as important, what’s it’s not.
In Carter’s case, prosecutors had to find a novel way to obtain justice, via the involuntary manslaughter charge. The judge found that Carter’s “wanton and reckless conduct” resulted in the death of Roy, her boyfriend at the time. Carter appealed her conviction, which was unanimously upheld by the state Supreme Judicial Court in a decision stating that she acted with criminal intent when she “badgered” Roy into killing himself. Her defense team had argued that Carter’s texting and phone calls with Roy were protected by the First Amendment as free speech. But as the state’s high court wrote: “We are . . . not punishing words alone . . . but reckless or wanton words causing death.”
The Carter case, and the SJC ruling, practically begged for legislation to define when coercion crosses the line into illegality. Finegold and Higgings intentionally built a narrow bill: A person could be charged with coercion only if they know that the victim is suicidal and/or has a history of suicidal ideation. Additionally, they would have to intentionally provide “the physical means, or knowledge of such means” to the victim so they could commit or attempt suicide; or they would have to exercise “substantial control” or “undue influence” over the victim.
In a press conference, Finegold and Higgins noted the rise in teen suicide rates as another driver of the proposal. “I see on a daily basis how influential young people can be on each other’s mental health,” Finegold told reporters . “Just straight-on bullying is not something that would get this charge. But if you are someone who is passionately coercing someone, saying they should take this act, then they could be charged.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts opposes the bill, while acknowledging it’s a well-intentioned effort. A particularly problematic piece of the legislation is the “provision that authorizes prosecutions for what the bill calls undue influence,” said Matthew Segal, the ACLU of Massachusetts’ legal director. “It will potentially open up all kinds of vague prosecutions of speech based on prosecutors’ judgment that one person has bewitched another.”
Opponents of the Carter prosecution also worry that the precedent could be turned against doctors who participate in end-of-life discussions with patients. But having a clear definition of coerced suicide in Massachusetts would actually protect doctors, in the event that physician-assisted suicide becomes legal in the state, by laying out clear guardrails. A law like Finegold and Higgins’s would also help reassure the public (who rejected physician-assisted suicide in a 2012 ballot question) that such a policy would come with safeguards for the vulnerable. And, in an additional protection, Finegold and Higgins’s proposal specifically includes an exemption for doctor-assisted suicide, even though Massachusetts has not legalized the practice. (A so-called “death with dignity” bill is pending in the Legislature.)
Suicide coercion cases are notably rare. But there’s an obvious difference between the way Michelle Carter treated her victim and the way a caring doctor would treat a terminally ill patient, and the law should spell out that distinction.