We know an individual has gone insane when he or she loses the capacity to reason. We know a society has gone insane when its courts — one of the most important institutions of a free and rational society — hand down decisions like the one this judge handed down in Massachusetts.
TAUNTON, Mass. — For a case that had played out in thousands of text messages, what made Michelle Carter’s behavior a crime, a judge concluded, came in a single phone call. Just as her friend Conrad Roy III stepped out of the truck he had filled with lethal fumes, Ms. Carter told him over the phone to get back in the cab and then listened to him die without trying to help him.
That command, and Ms. Carter’s failure to help, said Judge Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County Juvenile Court, made her guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a case that had consumed New England, left two families destroyed and raised questions about the scope of legal responsibility. Ms. Carter, now 20, is to be sentenced Aug. 3 and faces up to 20 years in prison.
The judge’s decision, handed down on Friday, stunned many legal experts with its conclusion that words alone could cause a suicide.
“This is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words,” said Matthew Segal, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which raised concerns about the case to the state’s highest court. “That is a drastic expansion of criminal law in Massachusetts.”
Ms. Carter’s defense team is expected to appeal the verdict.
I have no idea what motivated Michelle Carter to tell her friend to get back in the truck, thereby sealing his death. Was it a bad cell phone connection? Was it a misunderstanding? Was it a moment of emotional fury when, realizing his intent to kill himself, she retaliated with the equivalent of, “Well go ahead, then!” We can speculate until the cows come home. Even in a trial, it will be hard to discern the truth. When someone is unjustly on trial for murder, their emotions might distort the truth, or they might even consciously do so in order to escape prison. Who knows? Carter’s lawyers claimed she was misunderstood by the distraught young man, that she was trying to help him. Who cares? That’s not the point. Even if she ordered him to end his life because she had herself concluded his life was worthless, it was his decision — not hers. Unless she pulls the trigger or stabs him with the knife, she cannot make him end his own life.
What I do know for certain is that this verdict is, quite literally, insane. The ACLU attorney nailed it when he said that Michelle Carter was convicted for using the murder weapon of her words.
The verdict absolves all self-responsibility for the death of the young man who killed himself. Instead, full responsibility is placed on the person who failed to stop him, or who allegedly told him to go ahead and do it.
Many of us grew up hearing the expression, “If so-and-so told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?” It was considered an absurdity, a rhetorical question that answered itself. How many of us thought we’d live to see the day — in the United States, of all places — where the person who told you to jump off the bridge, once you did it, would be charged with your murder?
People asked me to comment on this story, knowing that I’m a psychotherapist. I find the fact that this young woman was even put on trial too astonishing and devastating to consider. The fact that she was convicted suggests to me that our society and culture has, indeed and fully, gone insane.
The verdict has wider implications, too. Once courts establish that words and words alone can be the equivalent of murder weapons, how long until free speech is considered the same? Liberty began in Massachsetts, at the time of the American Revolution. It seems that liberty will end there, as well.
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