Suicide trial verdict could set precedent on role of texts

A Massachusetts judge finds Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself in a series of text messages.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read
Watch this: Judge reads guilty verdict in texting-suicide case
Michelle Carter Texting Suicide Trial

Michelle Carter is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging 18-year-old Conrad Roy III to kill himself in July 2014.

Boston Globe

Michelle Carter wasn't with Conrad Roy III when he killed himself three years ago. But through a series of text messages and phone calls that encouraged the teen to end his life, Carter participated in his suicide.

Massachusetts judge found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a decision that could set a legal precedent for online speech. The decision on Friday broke ground because a suspect's physical presence at the scene of a death is usually a condition of the charge, but Carter wasn't with Roy when he filled his pickup truck with carbon monoxide in July 2014. Her text messaging, however, created a virtual presence.

Carter sent messages to Roy, including one that told the troubled teen to "get back in" the truck after he left it, prosecutors said. In the weeks leading up to Roy's death, Carter sent him text messages encouraging his suicide.

"You can't think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it," Carter wrote in a text to Roy on the day he died, CBS reported.

Massachusetts has no law against convincing someone to commit suicide. Involuntary manslaughter includes "engaging in reckless or wanton conduct."

The defense argued that Carter wasn't guilty because she was nowhere near Roy when he died in a Walmart parking lot. Prosecutors argued that her constant texting and phoning meant she might as well have been.

"People fall in love on the internet and via text, people bully via text and the internet, and you can encourage someone to die via text," Assistant District Attorney Katie Rayburn said during the trial.

The decision underscores how the law hasn't kept up with changing technology even as it plays a greater role in our everyday lives. The case set a legal precedent that words, whether they're spoken or sent online, can directly cause a person's death.

"This sends a strong message to people that using technology to bully people into committing suicide will not be tolerated," Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University told The New York Times.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights group, said the conviction broke legal ground by setting a precedent for what people can and can't say on the internet.

"This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions," Matthew Segal, the Massachusetts ACLU branch's legal director said in a statement. "The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy's death."

Not all agreed with that assessment. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the verdict didn't reflect any changes for online speech because the First Amendment doesn't prevent the punishment of someone when the intent in direct conversation is to cause harm.

"This seemed to be communications that occurred in a personal relationship," EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene said. "It wasn't somebody posting something online."

Carter faces up to 20 years in prison. She reportedly sent thousands of text messages to Roy.

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."

Life, disrupted: In Europe, millions of refugees are still searching for a safe place to settle. Tech should be part of the solution. But is it?