When Should Incitement to Suicide Be a Crime?

A Massachusetts US juvenile court has found Michelle Carter, 20, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for inciting her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to suicide.

This is a landmark decision in the case law surrounding manslaughter in the United States and raises intriguing legal and ethical questions for Australia. In particular, when should you be held criminally responsible for the death of another?

The details of the case are nicely summed up in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The novel case rested on more than 1000 Facebook and text messages exchanged between two troubled teenagers over two years.

Conrad Roy was found dead in the cab of his pickup truck in the parking lot of a Kmart on July 13, 2014, with a tube from a generator pumping in carbon monoxide.

Up to the moment he passed out from the toxic fumes, Carter was on the telephone with him; when he had doubts and got out of the truck, she ordered him back in.

There is no defending Carter’s actions on an ethical level, they are morally repugnant and appear to constitute callous treatment of a vulnerable young man. However, moral reprehensibility does not equal criminality.

In Australia, Carter would likely have been charged and convicted for an offence other than manslaughter. For example, Brodie’s Law in Victoria which seeks to criminalise ‘serious bullying‘ or the ‘aiding and abetting suicide’ offence in NSW. Both of these offences are more minor than manslaughter and indicate a lesser degree of culpability.

In an old blog of mine, I looked at the complexity of charging internet trolls for their harassment of Charlotte Dawson, who tragically committed suicide within a year of that post. The reality is that the internet has facilitated (but not caused) some of the worst aspects of human nature to come out: the pleasure in punishing “others” (in the exclusionary sense). I argued then, and I stand by it now, that the intent behind online harassment is more apathetic than vindictive, which should mitigate that sentence attached to new laws implemented to criminalise the behaviour.

Can such mitigation also apply to Carter? Even though she knew the victim in person? I’m not sure.

Another issue raised by the case, and noted in this post by David French, is the degree that we are to give the victim, Conrad Roy III, agency. We have a long, terrible history of treating those with a mental illness as being incapable of making decisions for themselves. Recent trends to present mental illness as directly analogous to physical illness avoid awkward questions of selfhood, choice and responsibility.

Roy was suffering from anxiety and depression. He had attempted suicide in the past. He did not appear confused or unsure about the nature of what he was doing. The long series of texts exchanged between Carter and Roy present a complicated picture of their relationship.

Initially, Carter tried to convince Roy to seek help:

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 10.57.25 AM

This exchange then slowly, over a few days, turns into Carter assisting in the suicide:

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 10.58.14 AM

Finally, Carter becomes more aggressive and insistent that Roy commit to his plans:

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 10.59.40 AM This raises complex questions about who is ultimately responsible for Roy’s death. After all, Roy appeared determined to commit suicide and refused to seek help. Carter initially attempts to help Roy, but is then co-opted into his plan for suicide and takes on the role of instigator.

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Again, none of the discussion above is trying to morally defend Carter’s actions but it does raise intriguing questions of whether she should wear the full brunt of criminal responsibility.

Ultimately, this is a question for the community: how do we juggle these various issues of agency, callousness and causation when assigning blame?

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