Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter for texting that ends in suicide

This is not legal advice, but commentary about a recent case that I have been asked about.  I was not involved in the case nor was I in the court when proceedings took place.  I am basing information off of what is available to the public through court documents and news articles.

Family and friends have asked me a few questions about the Commonwealth v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624 case.  Mainly, because this case made news the other day and curiosity Blossomed.  I think the NY Post did an excellent job summarizing the court’s ruling in their article “Suicide-text girlfriend guilty in lover’s death.”  In the article it clearly quotes the court when they stated that Ms. Carter was mindful of the toxic environment with carbon monoxide the teen was in, that she knew of previous suicide attempts, and her instructions to him to get back in the truck was wanton and reckless conduct.  Additionally, Ms. Carter did not contact anyone to help her boyfriend when he was telling her that he was attempting to kill himself, and instead texted him “You just have to do it.”  While she was not physically present at the location or in physical proximity that is not required for involuntary manslaughter.

Massachusetts does not have Involuntary Manslaughter defined in their code of law, but it is defined in common law, and this attorney does a good job at explain how Massachusetts defines it.  While Involuntary Manslaughter is different from state to state most have similar laws to the South Carolina Code of Laws §16-3-60.  South Carolina defines Involuntary Manslaughter as involving criminal negligence which means “the reckless disregard of the safety of others.”  Based on my reading of the court documents and news articles it appears Massachusetts has this element too.  In law school and in studying for the bar I considered Involuntary Manslaughter the “Idiot test” meaning only an idiot would not realize their actions were putting others in serious jeopardy.  In looking at this case I think Ms. Carter would have to be beyond an idiot to not realize that her friend who had previously attempted suicide was telling her that he was going to kill himself as they spoke and texted, would not take her words of encouragement as putting her friend’s life in danger.  Additionally, her lack of seeking help or notifying anyone else of his suicide attempt, while encouraging him to do it, supports the state’s case that she had reckless disregard for his safety.  You look at more than just words when determining if there was reckless disregard.  To me the real key to understanding involuntary manslaughter is that you do not have to ‘pull the trigger’ your actions can lead to another person’s death the state just has to show a reckless disregard for the potential consequences.  Often times drunk drivers who cause an accident that result in someone else dying are charged with involuntary manslaughter, because their reckless decision to drive drunk put the safety of others in jeopardy.  Framing it in this context may help people understand the ruling.

Now the ACLU is claiming this ruling impinges free speech, but you also have to look at her actions and attitude instead of just what she texted to him.  If you look at just what she texted and only that, yes the ACLU might be right it could impact free speech.  However, Involuntary Manslaughter looks at more than what you say to a person it looks at all of your actions to see if there was a reckless disregard for the safety of others.  I don’t know what the appeals process will look like or if the ruling will change, but I want to give you something to think about.

IF a person, especially a teenager, is depressed and attempted suicide in the past and tells you they are in the process of doing it again, would you encourage them? would you tell them to stop and seek help? would you call someone to get help?  how would you respond?

If you need legal advice please speak to an attorney in your state.  This commentary does not advocate or recommend any legal professionals or legal services that may be linked or referenced.

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