Michelle Carter, a 20-year-old Massachusetts woman pronounced guilty of involuntary manslaughter back in June in the 2014 suicide of her “boyfriend,” Conrad Roy III, has reportedly been sentenced to two and a half years in prison and five years of probation. (Note: She had been facing as many as twenty years upon the initial review of the case by Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz, who admittedly ignored key facets of Roy’s past re: mental illness, depression, and specifics of his online relationship with Carter when deciding on a verdict.) Of these two and half years, Carter is required to only serve 15 months. For now, she remains free, pending an appeal.
Granted, this sentence is certainly lenient (given the maximum threshold of twenty years). But neither the sentencing nor the initial conviction should have happened in the first place. This case sets a new legal precedent in which words can cause death. The implications here are staggering, and incredibly dangerous.
As I said back in June re: Carter’s conviction, this is NOT me condoning Carter’s actions. She should NOT have texted those things to Roy, especially knowing what she did of his struggles with depression, social anxiety, and previous suicide attempts. She may indeed have a “damaged moral core,” as Roy’s aunt, Kim Bozzi, has asserted to reporters. She may very well have exhibited indifference and ignorance after the fact and treated the tragedy of his death as if it were nothing. But that’s not what this is about. This is about freedom of speech, and the limitations being placed on it by a juvenile court judge.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts – you know it’s controversial when you find yourself agreeing with the ACLU on anything – said in a statement: “While Mr. Roy’s death is truly devastating, it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.”
The notion that words can kill breeds immediate controversy, mainly because of the fact that laws exist to punish physical actions that violate statutes (e.g. drunk driving, shooting someone). In Massachusetts, no law exists criminalizing encouragement or coercion of suicide, since suicide is, in essence, the taking of one’s own life. Meaning you make the choice to terminate your own existence.
Massachusetts criminalized an action that had since never been criminalized in that state and convicted and sentenced a woman on this flimsy precedent that “words can kill.” This precedent that we are now to be held accountable for the actions of others that manifest as a result of our words.
Legally speaking, Carter’s conviction and sentencing are unconstitutional. Both exceed the limits of criminal law and violate freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.
The implications here are endless, and, quite honestly, terrifying.
Reports indicate that Roy’s mother has filed a wrongful death suit against Carter, demanding $4.2 billion in lost future wages for her son, whom she and Bozzi believe was forced to commit suicide by Carter rather than having made the choice on his own. Carter’s lawyer believes this suit to be “a massive stretch,” given that Roy made the decision to get back into the truck in the end, but time will tell how much more pressure is exerted upon Carter’s first amendment rights and how much further this family is willing to go to exact retribution.
As I’ve said multiple times before, we either have free speech, or we don’t. The former ensures freedom; the latter condemns it.