Conviction highlights legal system gaps in suicide cases

by Katherine Zhang, STEM Editor

In the last few years, a bevy of new technology and methods of communication have completely changed the way people communicate. It’s now much easier to share your life with others and foster new relationships online. On the other side, though, it has become much easier to influence others — especially to influence them negatively.

The last decade has seen a multitude of cases involving self-harm and suicide caused, at least in part, by the influence of social media and digital harassment. Many of these cases have been difficult to navigate: using a series of flat, two-dimensional texts or messages to discern the motives of a three-dimensional person can easily lead to incorrect or unsubstantiated conclusions. Moreover, court judges are still trying to adapt suicide cases to the strict right-and-wrong approach of codified law, struggling to pin the blame on one party or the other.

This struggle came to light with the case of Michelle Carter, a 20-year-old woman who urged her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to commit suicide over text message. The underlying question that Massachusetts judge Lawrence Moniz had to answer was whether Carter’s actions were a crime. If so, what kind of crime is it and how should it be punished?

Moniz’s verdict that Carter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter made waves across the country. A number of questions specific to the case have been raised — had Roy not committed suicide, would Carter have still been charged with a criminal offense? At what point does a verbal threat or message become a criminal offense?

Moreover, this case could set a precedent for future cases concerning suicide. The verdict essentially states that encouraging others to commit suicide can be punished as a crime, although Massachusetts has no law banning assisted suicide and the first amendment protects hate speech. It does not, however, protect “true threats,” the definition of which is loose but encompasses any speech that places the victim in fear of bodily harm or death. In general, verbal threats or messages become felonies or misdemeanors if they present clear and plausible threats to the victim’s mental or physical health or safety.

However, Carter’s encouragement of suicide doesn’t seem to fit clearly into the types of speech that are addressed in the laws we have now. They are not threats, and labeling them as manslaughter also seems extreme because it is impossible to discover how much Carter’s words impacted Roy and whether they ultimately caused his suicide.

Of course, few cases are so black and white that a verdict won’t be questioned. And a case like Carter’s, in which no outsider could truly know and understand Carter’s and Roy’s intentions in their conversation about suicide, is no exception. But the case should signal to legal experts who have been watching its proceedings that its murkiness and lack of clear legal guidance mean that we need a better way to tackle cases like this one. As tense as the discussion around the case is, we can do much better than skirt it and forget it once the fervor dies down. Instead, we should tackle the questions raised by this case.

There’s no knowing what conclusions we might come to: perhaps this “texting suicide case,” as well as other suicide-related cases, can be incorporated into the laws that we have now or will only result in slight modifications and clarifications in the laws. Perhaps we’ll find that current laws should be changed more drastically to incorporate laws specifically tailored towards the consequences of encouraging suicide.

Even more likely, we may find that suicide simply doesn’t fit into the legal system we have now because an issue so connected to human emotion is difficult to evaluate with codified law and a set of lawyers, judges and jurors who have little insight into the minds of the victim those involved. But whatever the result, this case only reinforces the fact that more thinking needs to be done about how cases like this should be judged.