Sunday, June 18, 2017

Can Words Kill?

You have no doubt heard about Michelle Carter. The young woman in Massachusetts persuaded a young man who was infatuated with her to… commit suicide. She showed off some girl power, don't you think? For her actions, which involved sending texts, she was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is facing up to twenty years in prison.

I hesitate to dive into the complex legal thicket surrounding the prosecution and conviction. Undoubtedly, it will all be taken up in numerous appeals. But, I find Elie Mystal's analysis cogent and compelling. It comes to us from the Above the Law blog:

What does it mean to be convicted of killing someone who kills himself:

If “free will” is to mean anything, you cannot “suicide” a person to death. You can murder someone, you can accidentally murder someone, you can pay someone to murder someone for you, you can set up a criminal organization under which murders occur on your behalf, you can even set up conditions so inherently unsafe that you are criminally responsible for anybody who happens to die. But you can’t kill a person who kills themselves. The self-killing breaks the causal chain between your actions, however reprehensible, and the death.

Judge Lawrence Moniz in Massachusetts found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Conrad Roy. Roy killed himself with carbon monoxide poisoning in his car in a Kmart parking lot. But I guess according to Moniz Roy didn’t really kill himself because Carter sent him a lot of mean texts and phone calls encouraging him to commit suicide.

Might one argue that Carter was inciting, like shouting fire in a crowded room? Mystal disagrees:

Carter was not disturbing the peace. She was not inciting a riot. She didn’t push him into the car and lock the door. She didn’t turn on the gas. She didn’t threaten to kill him if he didn’t do it himself. 

Do words kill? Do nasty texts kill? If so, what does this do to our first amendment rights:

If we’re going to live in world where words kill people, and self-inflicted wounds are not self-inflicted if somebody tells you to inflict them, how far back in the causal chain are we willing to go? My mom says I’m not fat, I’m just big-boned, will somebody arrest her if I have a coronary? How far back does it go even in the instant case? Who told Michelle Carter that heaven “existed” and was a nice place? Haul their asses into court. Would Roy have killed himself if he knew that only worms and darkness awaited on the other side?

What is it all about? Mystal says that it’s about revenge against a decidedly unappealing human being:

The prosecution of Michelle Carter clearly isn’t about justice. It’s about revenge and deterrence. We want to punish Carter because her texts were so mean, and we want to warn teens not to bully each other online because there will be consequences. Convicting someone for texting a man to death is a perverse miscarriage of justice, but if it stops one teen from body-shaming a fellow teen on Instagram, most parents will be cool with the conviction.

He concludes:

The law is designed to prosecute people who do awful things, not people who say awful things.

Michelle Carter didn’t save Conrad Roy. That’s not the same as killing him. The law shouldn’t have such a hard time distinguishing between the two.


Ares Olympus said...

Yes, the harsh punishment is obviously a deterrent.

This is similar to "assisted suicide", but no honest person who is assisting a suicide would never "bully" a person who is showing reluctance to encourage them follow through.

It's an example of our "brave new world" where there are digital records of your words. In an older world, it would be a lot harder to prosecute.

I didn't hear about remorse from the girl. It's easier to harshly punish people who don't show remorse.

In contrast, St Paul's Philando Castile's shooter, police officer Jeronimo Yanez expressed immediate remorse at the scene, and in the trial, and he was judged not guilty of man-slaughter. Myself, I'll call that case justice if Yanez is banned from being a police officer again. Some deadly mistakes should be "one strike, you're out." Justice would be better training officers before that fateful day.

AesopFan said...

The juxtaposition of the arguments in this case and those in the shooting of the Congressmen are intriguing.
When do words matter enough that they do, in fact, become a crime?

"However much those who portray the death of Donald Trump believe that they are not really promoting such acts, members of the general public might hear things differently. When the audience stands and applauds the murder of Caesar/Trump, for all I know, some crank out there might come to believe that he will be applauded for shooting some Republican Congressmen."

JPL17 said...

Very appropos that this unprecedented verdict was rendered in the People's Republic of Massachusetts. I can't quite imagine it being rendered anywhere else.