Is urging one to suicide tantamount to killing?
A young woman is on trial for telling her boyfriend to end his life, which he did.
NEW YORK — Do words kill?
That is the gist of the decision facing Massachusetts Judge Lawrence Moniz in a landmark manslaughter case against a young woman who urged her 18-year-old boyfriend to commit suicide.
Michelle Carter was a troubled 17-year-old high schooler when she sent her depressed boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, a barrage of messages belittling him for not having the courage to kill himself. “You always say you’re going to do it, but you never do,” she wrote. Finally he did. In July 2014, following her advice to “just park your car and sit there and it will take, like, 20 minutes,” Roy pumped carbon monoxide into the cab of his pickup truck in the parking lot of a Kmart. At one point, when he got out of the truck scared and already dizzy from inhaling the fumes, Carter ordered him to go back in.
The judge began his deliberations on Wednesday and has said he would announce a decision Friday at 11 a.m. Carter faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
It was an unusual trial, lasting a week, as Carter had waived her right to a jury.
There is little dispute about the evidence in the case. The communications were preserved in the form of thousands of pages of screenshots of text messages that laid bare, typos and all, the raw emotions of the young couple. Both had a history of psychiatric illness. Roy had attempted suicide four times previously, and Carter had a history of anorexia and cutting herself.
They met in 2012, and although they lived about an hour apart, their relationship took place mainly by text messages. They discussed the possibility of dying together in a “Romeo and Juliet” pact.
Carter sent Roy her research on methods of committing suicide, including one in which he would rig a generator to the car to kill himself with carbon monoxide. When he couldn’t find the right generator, she offered other suggestions: “Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself idk there’s a lot of ways.”
Carter, now 20, did not take the stand. Instead, the defense relied heavily on the testimony of a controversial psychiatrist, Peter Breggin, a critic of the pharmaceutical industry. He testified that Carter was “involuntarily intoxicated” and “enmeshed in delusion” by an antidepressant medication, Celexa, that she started taking a few months before Roy’s death, and had convinced herself that Roy would be better off dead.
Prosecutors portrayed Carter as manipulative and attention-hungry and said she thought Roy’s suicide would cast her in the role of grieving girlfriend and enhance her social status.
Although testimony about the secret life of teenagers made for compelling listening, the underlying legal issues have implications for future cases about free speech and assisted suicide.
Massachusetts has no law against assisted suicide, and the prosecution appeared to go beyond the scope of the existing law, said Sharon Beckman, a law professor at Boston College:
“The law says that a person is responsible for their own suicide. That ... applies no matter what the other person said or whether they handed them the weapon.”
MICHELLE CARTER, with her attorney, waived her right to a jury, so a judge will decide her fate.