Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Words That Kill

The following article appeared on the American Thinker website on July 12th

The Massachusetts conviction last month of Michelle Carter for involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of boyfriend Conrad Roy raises a host of legal questions and related speculations about what precedents it has set. After repeated urgings via texts by Carter, Roy, having outfitted his own vehicle with a device to channel its exhaust, died by carbon monoxide poisoning on July 14, 2014. Carter was not present at the scene. Roy was eighteen years old at the time, and Carter seventeen and classified as a juvenile under Massachusetts law.

Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a human being directly caused by some act done recklessly. The Massachusetts law is a fairly standard representative of the law of all the states. It can be committed by “wanton or reckless conduct” or by “wanton or reckless failure to act.” The conduct that kills is intentional, but the killing is not. Death is not intended. By contrast, in first and second-degree murder and in voluntary manslaughter, there is an intent to kill. 
Michelle Carter

A clear example of involuntary manslaughter is vehicular homicide where a driver speeds or otherwise drives recklessly and causes an accident that kills someone. The reckless driver does not intend to kill. (In most states, death caused by drunken driving is second-degree murder.) An example of failure to act is the fire that killed 36 people in the warehouse used as an artists’ collective in Oakland, California, in December 2016. Two proprietors of the building have now been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to properly outfit and maintain the building -- that is, they recklessly failed to act.

A major problem in the Massachusetts case concerns the everyday definition of words. The numerous news stories about the incident have gone into lengthy detail about Michelle Carter’s emails urging Conrad Roy to kill himself. That is, she voluntarily intended his death. But in directly causing his death, she is convicted of involuntary manslaughter. With that contradiction, the average citizen may find it difficult to comprehend what actually happened in the case.

In a car accident, it is the car that kills. In a fire caused by recklessness, it is the burning building that kills. In this case, the court has ruled that Michelle Carter’s words killed Conrad Roy. In point of fact, what killed Roy was carbon monoxide from an apparatus Roy himself placed in his own vehicle. The judge who decided the case found that Carter was guilty of the required “wanton and reckless conduct” necessary for involuntary manslaughter when she “instructed” Roy to get back into his truck after Roy had expressed reluctance to follow through on his suicide. So, the legal conclusion is, Carter’s words killed Roy. 
Conrad Roy

Words can certainly be evidence of any crime, but this appears to be the first case in which the words themselves are the instrument of death. Words can be the prime evidence of a criminal threat but almost always in the context of a victim experiencing fear of an immediate or plausible danger. Words can be charged as an incitement of an imminent criminal act. Words can be evidence of a conspiracy, that is, an agreement to commit a crime, or of aiding-and-abetting a crime, but the conspiracy or other crime must exist on its own. There was no conspiracy here in that Roy was not guilty of a crime, suicide not being criminalized by any statute in Massachusetts. And Massachusetts, unlike the majority of states, has no law criminalizing the encouragement of suicide.

Finally, the judge in the case extended the law in an additional way. Our legal tradition is that the law obligates no one to be a Good Samaritan. But the Massachusetts judge also found that Carter had a duty to attempt to stop Roy by calling the police or notifying Roy’s family.

After she is sentenced on August 3, Michelle Carter is certain to appeal both her conviction and her sentence. In our Anglo-American system of law, every decision of a court, civil or criminal, unavoidably sets a precedent. But this widely discussed case, even without its final resolution, has already set its own precedent.

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