The only so-called “freedom” an American citizen will lose from this verdict is the previously-unchallenged freedom to try your hardest to make those who love you die.
When criminal verdicts permanently alter criminal law and a particular case sets a new precedent, people are usually concerned about two things: the first is: “Which of my freedoms will I lose because of this?”
However, there is a second question that is asked, albeit usually more quietly. That question is, “How will myself and others gain protections because of this?” When something is upended by the justice system, those who ask the first question feel as though they’re losing something. They feel that now there’s one more thing they have to worry about being sentenced to prison for, one more activity they have to second guess, because someone might convict them of a crime.
However, when someone is legally punished for their behavior and a new precedent is set, future victims of a dangerous act are protected. So when it comes to the court case that led to Michelle Carter’s controversial conviction of involuntary manslaughter for the texts and phone call that preceded Conrad Roy III’s suicide, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Which of our freedoms will we lose because of this? And what protections will we gain?
For weeks leading up to Roy’s death, Carter encouraged him to take his own life via text messages. She made manipulative appeals to his emotions, telling him that his family would “get over it” and that it was “time.” At one point, she went so far as to tell him: “Conrad, I told you I’ll take care of them. Everyone will take care of them to make sure they won’t be alone and people will help them get through it.”
She clearly took advantage of a mentally ill, vulnerable person. However, up until the last text message she sent, Carter was legally blameless. Her actions were disgusting, to be sure, but not technically criminal.
On July 12th, 2014, Roy drove to a KMart parking lot, where he planned to take his life. Carter knew his intent when he drove to that parking lot. After they exchanged their final text messages, they began talking on the phone. At some point during this phone call, Roy began the process of emitting carbon monoxide into his pickup truck. He began the process of dying.
Carter was on the phone with him the entire time. At this point, he still had technically acted upon his own free will, though he obviously had been heavily manipulated by someone who he trusted, someone with full knowledge of his vulnerability and suicidal tendencies.
It was what happened next that cinched Carter’s guilty conviction: afraid of dying, Roy got out of the car, which was filling with toxic gas. The judge in the case, Lawrence Moniz, explains: “However, he breaks that chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle he takes himself out of the toxic environment that it has become.”
At this juncture, there is a life-threatening situation looming just a few feet away from Roy. All he had to do was open the door to his truck, climb inside the cabin, close the door behind him, and wait to die. And Carter, fully aware of what was happening, told him he should do it. There was an immediate and deadly situation occurring in real time, and Carter instructed Roy to place himself in the thick of it.
So now, let’s re-examine the two questions that we considered earlier. First, which of our freedoms will we lose because of this case? The only so-called “freedom” an American citizen will lose from this verdict is the previously-unchallenged freedom to try your hardest to make those who love you die.
Now for the second question: who is being protected by this verdict? When Roy got back in his truck to die, he had to make a decision: go through with what he had promised his girlfriend he would do or back out. He was mentally ill and emotionally susceptible to the influence of others, especially those whom he trusted like Carter. She undoubtedly knew this. The precedent established by his case means that in the future, people like Carter will be incentivized not to do what she did. This has the clear and obvious potential to save the lives of those suffering from under-treated and possibly under-diagnosed mental illnesses, who are going to be easily influenced by those who mean them harm.
Practically speaking, Carter’s role in Roy’s life was no different than it would have been if she had physically locked him in a room full of carbon monoxide. Her words had the same impact, as she knew and hoped they would. Her words were premeditated and calculated. She intended for him to die, and he did.
Anytime we broaden our interpretation of what is and isn’t criminal, many are fearful of their rights being stepped on. However, the verdict reached by the court is going to protect the vulnerable and punish the evil– and is this not the ultimate purpose of the American criminal justice system?