Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

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