USS Fitzgerald

Letters Blogatory mourns the loss of the seven sailors from the USS Fitzgerald

Today’s case of the day, Commonwealth v. Carter, is off-topic, but it was tried right here in Massachusetts, and I think you’ll find it interesting and maybe horrifying. This case will be taught in law schools for many years to come. Michelle Carter, a minor at the time of the crime, was indicted as a youthful offender for the manslaughter of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. The gist of the case was that Roy was a troubled young man who had previously tried to commit suicide. Carter, in a long series of text messages, encouraged him to kill himself, and in fact he got into a car with the intent to kill himself with carbon monoxide. Once the attempt was underway, he left the car, but in a phone call, Carter told him to get back into the car, which he did. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning; Carter never called for help or took steps to save him after having told him to get back into the car. At a trial in the Bristol County Juvenile Court that ended on Friday, the judge (Carter had waived her right to trial by jury) found Carter guilty.

Unlike many states, Massachusetts does not have a law making it criminal to encourage a suicide. It’s also maybe useful to know that in Massachusetts, many crimes, including manslaughter, are not codified in any statute but instead are common-law crimes that are defined through judicial precedent. For our purposes, involuntary manslaughter requires proof that the defendant acted wantonly and recklessly and caused the victim’s death.

At an early stage in the case, Carter sought to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the evidence presented to the grand jury did not suffice even to show probable cause that a crime had been committed. Her theory was that Roy had caused his own death, and that encouraging someone to commit suicide cannot be wanton and reckless for purposes of the law. Her petition wound up before the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that the indictment was sufficient, thus allowing the case to go to trial. We’ll discuss the rationale of the SJC’s decision in a moment.

The judge’s decision finding Carter guilty has been controversial, of course. Most of the controversy has been on First Amendment grounds. I happen to think the decision was likely correct, and we can look to the SJC’s decision to see why. The court cited two precedents, Persampieri v. Commonwealth, 343 Mass. 19 (1961), and Commonwealth v. Atencio, 345 Mass. 627 (1963). Persampieri involved a married couple; the husband told the wife he was divorcing her and the wife threatened to commit suicide (which she had attempted before). The husband taunted her, saying she was “chicken” and wouldn’t have the courage to go through with the suicide. He loaded the gun and handed it to her. When she had trouble firing it, he explained to her how to do it, and she then killed herself. In Atencio, three friends were “playing” Russian roulette. The two defendants each pointed the gun at their own heads and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The third then did the same and fatally shot himself. In both cases, the defendants’ convictions of manslaughter were affirmed.

So it is clear under Massachusetts law that suicide does not necessarily break the causal link necessary for criminal liability on a charge of manslaughter. The closer case is Persampieri, since most of the wanton and reckless conduct was words: the husband, like Carter, suggested in words that the victim wouldn’t be able to go through with the suicide, and like Carter, he walked her through the process of killing herself. The key differences are that the husband was physically present at the time of the suicide and that part of his conduct involved something other than words: he loaded the gun that fired the fatal shot. But even after he handed her the loaded gun, she was unable to kill herself using the gun until the husband explained to her (with words, of course) how to do it. So the conduct that was most immediately the cause of the death was verbal. If the case had happened in 2017 instead of 1963, the husband might have left the room and texted the necessary information to his wife.

In light of these precedents, it seems to me that the verdict is at least reasonable. The danger is that a court in a future case might find, say, an author of a book explaining how to poison oneself with carbon monoxide guilty of manslaughter if the book was found opened to the key page in the presence of someone who committed suicide that way. I think, though, that we should trust the court to be able to distinguish the two cases through the process of common law adjudication, and so I don’t see a big First Amendment risk on the outrageous facts of the case.