Friday, February 22, 2019

Is it free speech to tell someone to commit suicide?

A little more than a week after starting her sentence, the debates continue. As Michelle Carter’s legal team prepares an appeal of her involuntary manslaughter conviction, the nation considered the legal and social issues raised by her case.

If the conviction of a young woman who ordered her boyfriend to “get back in” an exhaust-filled pickup that killed him is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, some lawyers say she has a good chance the ruling will be overturned.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently upheld the guilty verdict in the novel case that raises questions about assisted suicide and free speech.

Michelle Carter, 22, is serving a 15-month sentence for urging Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in his pickup truck in a Fairhaven parking lot nearly five years ago.

Last summer, Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz ruled Carter caused his death. In convicting the teenager of involuntary manslaughter, the judge focused his ruling on Carter’s text to Roy to “get back in” after he climbed out of his truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide and told her he was afraid.

The judge said those words constituted “wanton and reckless conduct” under the manslaughter statute.

“She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck,” the judge said.

Within days of the unanimous ruling by the seven SJC justices, Carter’s lawyers, retired U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, and Daniel Marx, both of Fick & Marx LLP, filed an appeal with the nation’s top court.

“It’s a longshot, but a lot shorter longshot than most cases because it raises very substantial speech issues,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties litigator. “It’s a case that can be argued equally well on both sides. But the lawyers for this girl have the better argument. If it’s about speech in a criminal case, where every doubt has to be indulged in favor of the accused, then this conviction cannot stand.”

The question for the Supreme Court justices, Silverglate said, is whether the words Carter texted to her boyfriend are classified as protected speech or criminal speech.



Stan B said...

Under the Free Speech exception of "incitement to violence," it might be reasonable to carve out "incitement to self-harm" as unprotected, if the threat is imminent and known.

That is, yelling "jump" at a suicidal person on a ledge could be come "criminal" IF the person had already begun removing himself from the ledge in a safe manner.

I can live with such restrictions, especially if couched in the language of "incitement to violence, even self violence...."

Anonymous said...

Just as you don't yell fire in a crowded theater, encouraging someone into killing themselves especially while they are in the act and vacillating is a despicable act intended to immediately harm and does not deserve the normal protections. It is the action of a psychopath and should be treated as such.

That should be considered quite different from the case of person who in a moment of pique utters a phrase that unknown to the utterer pushes a person into the act of self harm.

Anonymous said...

Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre was almost the same thing and I think everyone can agree that Jim Jones, had he survived, would have been labeled a (mass) murder. Sure, the kid physically got back into the car, but her urging was what pushed him to do it in that moment.