Texting suicide trial reveals legal shades of gray

Did teen's texts lead to her boyfriend's suicide?
Did teen's texts lead to her boyfriend's suicide?

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Did teen's texts lead to her boyfriend's suicide? 02:22

Story highlights

  • Danny Cevallos: Only one individual can cause death in a suicide
  • The intent behind Michelle Carter's texts was clear: she wanted Conrad Roy to die, but she didn't legally "cause" Roy's death

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst who practices in the areas of personal injury, wrongful conviction and criminal defense in Pennsylvania, New York and the US Virgin Islands, at the law firms of Cevallos & Wong in Philadelphia, and Edelman & Edelman in New York, where he is Of Counsel. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Michelle Carter, 20, is on trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy III, who committed suicide after Carter sent numerous text messages encouraging him to kill himself. In this case, the digital records of Carter's statements alone establish her intent to cause Conrad's death and her awareness of her culpability afterward.

Danny Cevallos
Her conduct was cruel. It was immoral.
It wasn't a crime. Suicide is an independent choice. It's what the law calls an "intervening cause" -- something that breaks the causal connection between one person's action and the harm that may result from that action.
    Still, Carter could be convicted, because involuntary manslaughter crimes are often nebulously defined, especially in Massachusetts.
    There is no statutory definition of involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts; court cases have largely defined the contours of the crime. So not only can Carter be convicted under the law, there's a good chance she will be.
    But she shouldn't.
    This may be a minority opinion, but imposing liability for another's suicide is a slippery slope. No one will shed a tear for defendants like Michelle Carter -- or William Melchert-Dinkel, who was convicted of assisting suicide in Minnesota, despite doing nothing more than communicating words of encouragement over an electronic medium.
    They are not sympathetic figures. They are pathetic figures. It's not about them. It's about opening a Pandora's box of criminal liability. If you get in an argument over a taxi cab with some guy in the street and tell him to "drop dead", or the even better "go kill yourself," could you be liable for his suicide?
    He might be having a bad week, and your comment was the thing that pushed him over the edge. If you think that's a bad analogy, look at the cases of bullied teens who take their own lives. It's easy to look to blame the bullies, but ultimately, the person who caused the death is the one who committed suicide.
    Under common law, involuntary manslaughter generally requires that (1) the defendant intended to commit an act, (2) the intended act was wanton or reckless, and (3) the act caused the victim's death.
    Carter appears to have incessantly cajoled Roy until he was persuaded to kill himself. Her texts evince more than a negligent or reckless mind; the intent behind them was clear: she wanted him to die. But did she legally "cause" Roy's death?
    Roy's act of killing himself was the primary act causing his own death; legally, it intervened upon Carter's lesser conduct. As long as that intervening conduct is reasonably foreseeable, the defendant can still be held criminally responsible. If Carter's actions still contributed to the death, then she is still liable. The victim's conduct will only cut off her liability if it's the sole cause of death -- and that's the issue the court has to resolve.
    Cases in which a defendant only verbally encouraged suicide are relatively rare. The Massachusetts Supreme Court addressed a somewhat similar situation in 1961, when Ilario Persampieri was charged with involuntary manslaughter after his wife shot and killed herself.
    Unlike Carter's case, Persamipieri loaded a rifle at his wife's request, gave her instructions to help her use it on herself, and dared her to do shoot herself, calling her a "chicken." The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and challenged his conviction on appeal.
    The appellate court affirmed Persampieri's conviction for involuntary manslaughter because he was physically present, actively assisted and berated his wife into shooting herself. Other than the physical presence, and loading the gun, the case is not too different from Carter's. Is physical presence even necessary in a text messaging, social media age?
    Probably not -- and that will be a major issue for the Massachusetts court to address in this case.
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    But sometimes the law is about line-drawing, and this case should be one of those lines. As much you may want to see Michelle Carter punished, we can't start holding people liable for just encouraging suicide by text message, from miles away.
    Holding her liable would continue a disturbing recent trend in the law looking to blame third parties in cases of suicide. In every suicide, there is ultimately only one actor causing death.