Massachusetts SJC to Hear Oral Arguments Over Teen Suicide Encouragement Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments on Thursday in the case of Commonwealth v. Carter. Defendant Michelle Carter allegedly encouraged her friend to commit suicide, which he followed through with. Carter was only 17 at the time and therefore tried as a juvenile. The Court will hear arguments over whether a juvenile allegedly encouraging another person to commit suicide constitutes the “infliction or threat of serious bodily harm” for purposes of indicting her as a youthful offender.

Carter’s friend Conrad Roy committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide generated by his truck. While investigating Roy’s death, police uncovered text messages, phone calls, and emails between Carter and Roy. The messages focused on specific plans, direction, and encouragement for Roy to commit suicide. Phone records also revealed that Roy and Carter spoke by phone to each other during the time it is believed Roy sat in his truck inhaling the carbon monoxide fumes. Carter allegedly told Roy to “get back in his truck” when he exited because he was “scared that it was working.” Based on these correspondences, the Commonwealth sought to indict Carter as a youthful offender on the charge of involuntary manslaughter.

The Massachusetts legislature has not criminalized words that encourage suicide. No Massachusetts case or statute has recognized a duty to act in circumstances where a victim creates his own peril. The only way for Carter to be charged under involuntary manslaughter is for the state to show that Carter’s messages to Roy constitute the “wanton and reckless conduct” that caused the victim’s death.   Carter’s argues that her statements and text messages to Roy did not constitute the “infliction or threat of serious bodily harm” for the purposes of indicting her as a youthful offender. Carter argues that she committed no affirmative act resulting in Roy’s death, nor did she have any duty to protect him from self-harm.

The Commonwealth argues that Carter actually inflicted serious bodily harm upon Roy through her encouragement. The Commonwealth contends that a party need not engage in any physical acts to inflict serious bodily harm. The Commonwealth relies on precedent cases to contend the proposition that someone can be charged with manslaughter by encouraging another person to commit suicide, and that a physical act is not required in order to inflict serious bodily harm.

This is an unfortunate case where one juvenile is dead, and another will possibly be held partially responsible for that death. This case will set a precedent when the Court gives a clear answer of whether the encouragement of suicide can lead to a conviction of manslaughter. This was a tragic case that will create new law, but I would expect the court to decide with the defendant and hold that it is up to the legislature to clearly criminalize this type of conduct.

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