Readers of this blog know that I’ve written previously on the subject of whether coercing someone to commit suicide should formally be made a statutory crime in Massachusetts. When they first learn about this issue, a lot of people are stunned to learn that in Massachusetts, it’s not, formally speaking a “law on the books”. Well, it isn’t: Massachusetts remains only one of only eight states that does not have a statutory law that explicitly criminalizes the coercion of suicide.
As the nationally-reported ‘homicide by texting’ case of the Michelle Carter prosecution here in Massachusetts made clear, involving the suicide of Conrad Roy III in 2014, prosecutors had to charge her with the crime of involuntary manslaughter involving that case, which is what drew so much media attention to it: The legal elements required for a conviction of involuntary manslaughter can make not only bringing but securing a conviction on these cases, legally difficult. In Massachusetts, for prosecutors to secure a conviction of involuntary manslaughter requires a finding that the defendant engaged in “wanton and reckless conduct” which directly caused the victim’s death, and that is how, essentially, Michelle Carter was convicted: Through her acts of repeatedly encouraging her boyfriend Conrad Roy, who had repeatedly demonstrated depressive symptoms, to kill himself. Carter was Roy’s girlfriend and was 17-years-old at the time Roy killed himself.
The problem with this prosecutorial approach is that the defense usually rests upon a First Amendment claim of freedom of speech. This defense essentially claims that this type of speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that words alone, without action, cannot legally cause another person to commit suicide. Michelle Carter’s defense was that she didn’t cause Conrad Roy’s death – that he killed himself. As a Boston criminal defense lawyer, I don’t subscribe to this legal argument, at all. In fact, several of my legal colleagues disagree with me, but I stand by my position: If one person, knowing that another person possess or displays particular mental or emotional vulnerabilities such as depression, mental or emotional illness or suicidal thoughts, takes advantage of that person’s vulnerabilities and encourages the victim to commit suicide, such speech should not be considered protected, but should be statutorily codified as a crime.