The old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” may not be as true as it once was. In June 2017, a Massachusetts court found that a person’s words could be the direct cause of another person’s death, which can ultimately result in a verdict of involuntary manslaughter. In Commonwealth v. Carter,[1] a case that became national news, a teenage girl was charged for the death of her boyfriend because she encouraged and helped him plan his own suicide through phone conversations and text messages. The judge’s guilty verdict set new precedent for manslaughter in Massachusetts and raised potential constitutional issues in other states. This blog argues the reason why this case garnered so much attention was that its legal model can extend well beyond the encouragement and assistance of suicide. In particular, district attorneys across the United States may now potentially hold school bullies criminally responsible for their mean, taunting words that result in a peer’s suicide.

On July 13, 2014, police found the body of Conrad Roy III after he committed suicide in his car.[2] He struggled with mental health issues for several years and had attempted suicide once before.[3] His girlfriend, Michelle Carter, was aware of his struggles and had previously advised him to seek help.[4] In the weeks and months prior to his death, Michelle and Conrad discussed when, how, and why Conrad should commit suicide.[5] Throughout the day before he died, Michelle sent text messages to Conrad encouraging him: “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it . . . .”[6] They also had phone conversations along those same lines.[7] Afterwards, Michelle told a friend that Conrad left his car at first when the carbon monoxide started to come in, but that she then verbally told him to get back in the car.[8] Later on, Michelle told a friend that she believed, at any point throughout that day, she could have stopped the suicide from occurring, but she did not.[9]

When manslaughter gains media attention, it is often due to actions such as negligent driving resulting in a fatality or providing drugs to a person whom later overdosed.[10]   Technically, manslaughter is defined in Massachusetts as when “wanton and reckless conduct… involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.”[11] Such conduct can be found when: “the defendant [had] specific knowledge or . . . a reasonable person should have known in the circumstances.”[12] With this definition in mind and considering what most people consider manslaughter, Michelle Carter appealed whether she could be charged with the crime because she lacked the physical presence at Conrad’s death and did not supply him the tools to do so, insisting her words alone were not enough to be considered wanton and reckless conduct.[13] The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Michelle; they had never before had a case where mere words were the basis of the indictment.[14] But due to her words occurring in the final moments of Conrad’s life, they therefore had a “coercive quality. . . sufficient in the specific circumstances of this case to support a finding of probable cause.”[15]

After the Supreme Judicial Court’s findings, the Commonwealth could continue with their charges against Michelle in the juvenile district court. In a bench trial that consisted of more than a week of testimony and evidence regarding Michelle and Conrad’s relationship and their conversations, Judge Moniz found Michelle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Judge Moniz explained that a combination of Michelle’s actions were the reason for her guilty verdict. First, encouraging Conrad to commit suicide was “wanton and reckless conduct by [Michelle], creating a situation where there [was] a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to [Conrad].”[16] Second, “[Michelle’s] failure to act where she had a self-created duty to [Conrad], since she had put him into that toxic environment, constituted . . . wanton and reckless conduct” as well.[17]

Judge Moniz’s reasoning behind his decision was monumental. Many argued this finding essentially states Michelle “literally killed Mr. Roy with her words,” and goes against the traditional interpretation of involuntary manslaughter because it lacks a direct action from the defendant. It also possibly violates First Amendment rights due to the fact this type of scenario is not included in one of the exceptions to free speech.[18] Additionally, defense attorneys are now concerned this precedent will further confuse already muddled legal areas, such as assisted suicide and the duty to rescue.[19] It is likely that it will take the legislature some time to clarify this, but one of the more immediate impacts from this decision is showing the possible criminal implications of someone’s words.

Bullying is hardly new; the rise of the internet and mobile communication now makes cyber bullying a pressing concern.[20] For example, in Florida, a twelve-year-old girl, Rebecca Sedwick, committed suicide due to harassing words from her peers.[21] After her death, authorities found out two young girls had been consistently harassing Rebecca through the internet, posting on message boards and text messages telling her to: “drink bleach and die.”[22] In what was a groundbreaking case for Florida, the state filed felony charges of stalking against both girls because there were no other bullying laws that could apply to Rebecca’s death.[23] However, the charges were ultimately dropped because there was no evidence of stalking, just cyber abuse.[24]

If Florida had been able to adopt the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s reasoning and the first prong of Judge Moinz’s decision in the Carter case, there would potentially have been another way for Florida authorities to charge the two girls in Rebecca’s death.   There is a similar argument that like in the Carter case, the cyber abuse against Rebecca had the same “coercive quality” encouraging her to end her own life and that a reasonable person would realize that doing so was creating a situation in which there was a substantial risk of harm. Many say that holding people criminally accountable for their “virtual presence” during a suicide like this is a slippery slope.[25] But logic would show, if children knew the words they use in text messages and the alike could potentially be used against them in court, then some would think twice before posting, and hopefully ultimately help decrease the amount of cyber bullying throughout the nation.

There is no doubt that the Carter decision was a controversial one, and that its precedent will likely be far-reaching. But for many years, the nation has been struggling with finding ways to curb the ever-growing issue of school bullying. While only Massachusetts courts may take Carter as precedent, other states can at least use this case as an exemplar for young adults on what could happen to them if they are not careful with their words. It is inevitable this case will reach the nation’s highest court on appeal, but until then, children around the nation should understand their words carry heavy meaning, not only in the lives of others, but now also in the criminal legal system as well.

[1] No. 15YO0001NE (Mass. Juv. Ct. June 16, 2017); see also Commonwealth v. Carter, 52 N.E. 3d 1054 (Mass. 2016).

[2] See Carter, 52 N.E. 3d at 1056.

[3] See id.

[4] See Paul LeBlanc, The Text Messages That Led Up to Teen’s Suicide, CNN (June 16, 2017), [] (showing text message stating “[b]ut the mental hospital would help you. I know you don’t think it would but I’m telling you, if you give them a chance, they can save your life”).

[5] See Carter, 52 N.E. 3d at 1057-59.

[6] See LeBlanc, supra note 4.

[7] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 52 N.E. 3d 1054, 1059 (Mass. 2016)

[8] See id.

[9] See id.

[10] See Kiera Blessing, Salem High Graduate Convicted of Manslaughter in Drunken Driving Crash, Eagle-Tribune (Jan. 19, 2018), [] (reporting on drunk driving incident resulting in manslaughter conviction); Maria Cramer, Lynn Drug Dealer Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter in Overdose Case, Bos. Globe (Sept. 28, 2017), [] (explaining new Massachusetts law allows manslaughter convictions of drug dealers who provide substance in overdoses).

[11] Commonwealth v. Welansky, 55 N.E. 2d 902, 910 (Mass. 1944).

[12] Commonwealth v. Pugh, 969 N.E. 2d 672, 685 (Mass. 2012).

[13] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 52 N.E. 3d 1054, 1061 (Mass. 2016).

[14] See id. at 1061-62.

[15] See id. at 1063.

[16] Melissa Hanson, Why Michelle Carter was Found Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter in Conrad Roy’s Suicide, MassLive (June 26, 2017), [].

[17] Id.

[18] See Carla Zavala, Manslaughter By Text: Is Encouraging Suicide Manslaughter?, 47 Steton Hall L. Rev. 297, 312-16 (explaining Carter case does not fit easily into typical manslaughter through suicide case law); see also ACLU of Massachusetts Statement on Michelle Carter Guilty Verdict, ACLU (June 16, 2017), [] (arguing Carter decision wrong and in violation of First Amendment).

[19] See Mark Arsenault, Experts Say Michele Carter Case Revolved Around Concept That Words Can Kill, Bos. Globe (June 16, 2017), [] (quoting defense attorney about concerns regarding duty to rescue); Ashley Chin, Suicide by Text: The Case of Michelle Carter, 21 J. Tech. L. & Pol’y 99, 105-07 (2017) (comparing Carter case to physician assisted suicide cases).

[20] See Suyin Haynes, Melania Trump Urges Adults to Teach Children About Cyberbullying ‘By Our Own Example‘, Times (Sept. 21, 2017), [] (highlighting U.S. First Lady, Melania Trump, sets her focus on cyber bullying campaign); see also Anderson Cooper 360°: Bullying: It Stops Here (CNN 2011) (discussing issue of school bullying with victim testimony and need for school/student intervention).

[21] See Doug Stanglin & William M. Welch, Two Girls Arrested on Bullying Charges After Suicide, USA Today (Oct. 15, 2013), [https://perma.cc8352-SWGA] (highlighting story of Rebecca Sedwick and criminal implications of her attackers).

[22] See id. (explaining actions of young girls harmed Rebecca and drove her to commit suicide).

[23] See id. (quoting county sheriff regarding bullying’s criminality). “Bullying in and of itself is not a crime. But bullying makes up the predicate acts for stalking or aggravated stalking.” Id.

[24] See Steve Almasy, Charges Dropped in Rebecca Sedwick Bullying Case, CNN (Nov. 21, 2013), [] (reporting defense attorneys pleased with district attorneys decision to drop charges).

[25] See Zavala, supra note 18, at 973-74 (criticizing criminalization of bullying).

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