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Legally Speaking: Encouraging suicide toes line between morality, legality

(AP Photo)

Are law and morality at a crossroads?

Words can literally kill someone. At least that is what Massachusetts Judge Lawrence Moniz decided when he found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Carter faces a sentence of anywhere from probation to 20 years in prison.

When she was 17, Carter sent text messages to her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, urging him to commit suicide.

She wasn’t physically present when he committed suicide, she did not force him to do it, she did not help him plan it, she did not threaten him in any way to do it.

She texted him to “get back in” his truck when he got out. You see, at the time he got out of the truck he was attempting to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage.

Moniz’s decision is starting conversations around our country about just how far does responsibility go. The saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” is being reconsidered.

This is one of those cases that really pits morality against legality.

Most would agree it was morally reprehensible what Carter, now 20, did.

Yet there is significant disagreement about whether what she did was unlawful. Legal experts are arguing that there is not enough “causation” here to find her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. In addition, the ACLU is arguing there are issues of freedom of speech.

Is this an instance where the crossroads have been met and that the law needs to change to reflect morality? You might say to yourself that all law is based on morality, and yes, that is true to a certain extent.

Morality is subjective, what is immoral to one is a way of life to another. Our country is built on the difference of opinions.

However, is this that perfect instance where we are all on the same side that Carter’s actions were immoral and thus should be declared unlawful as well?

Time will tell, meaning, we may see a surge in the creation of laws that combat encouragement of suicide, much like we saw a surge of antibullying laws and policies.

Legally speaking, in Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter occurs when the defendant unintentionally causes the death of another human being while engaging in reckless or wanton conduct.

Did Carter’s conduct, the text message string, cause the death of her boyfriend? That is what the legal argument appears to be caught up on.

Roy was 18, he was an adult; Carter was not there. Did her text messages rise to the level of causation? Was her message enough to cause substantial harm to Roy?

What about his mental state, his alleged depression? Wasn’t that what caused his death? He made the decision to get back in, she did not force him.

Those questions and facts are the kindle for the legal firestorm this case has started.

Arizona considers it manslaughter (a class 2 felony) if a person “intentionally provides the physical means that another person uses to commit suicide with the knowledge that the person intends to commit suicide.”

However, it arguably does not cover “encouraging” suicide.

Again, her actions and words were horrible, immoral; yet, were they unlawful? Moniz decided they were but there is not a consensus in the legal field.

I find it likely the decision will be appealed (since it was in juvenile court they judge made the decision, not a jury).

I also find it likely more states will create laws making it unlawful to encourage suicide; some already have these laws.

I cannot be certain which way the appeal and sentencing will go but I am certain about two things: it is more clear than ever that parents need to watch their children on technology/social media and teach them that their words have consequences and, two families have been struck by tragedy that no words can heal.

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