Guilty of Manslaughter: Suicide by Bullying

06/20/2017 12:28 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2017

Michelle Carter has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2012 suicide death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III. The legal ramifications of the case and the precedents it may set are, and will continue to be, discussed by legal scholars.

I hope the tragic loss of Conrad Roy does not negatively impact physician-assisted suicide, known as Right to Die. Medical aid in dying, which allows physicians to end suffering, is something totally different from what occurred in this case, which was more akin to gawkers who, watching someone considering jumping off a bridge or building shout words encouraging the person to jump.

I hope this verdict DOES, however, have a marked and chilling impact on bullying and especially cyber-bulling, which has ended in the suicides of children as young as 12. May it help “mean girls” – and boys – realize that their speech, emails, tweets, and texts could have far-reaching life and death consequences and possibly put them in prison for 20 years as is the fate facing Michelle Carter. These are topics of discussion necessary for all families, especially those with teens, pre-teens and young adults.

And I hope that it serves as a conversation-starter over the dinner tables of families with teenaged children who are, or know someone who is, isolating or showing other signs of depression, anger or anxiety. Thirteen Reasons, a controversial Netflix miniseries based on a young-adult novel about bullying that leads to suicide, is an opportunity to open a conversation about teen suicide as is a major news story like this one.

Getting adolescents to talk is tricky. But suicide – and sometimes homicide - is on the minds of many teens. Perhaps even the proposed Megyn Kelly interview of Sandy Hook, denier Alex Jones could spark conversation about school shootings and why anyone would get so angry and frustrated as to want to hurt others and/or themselves.

Suicide, Bullying and the Law

The case of Michelle Carter is ground-breaking, and making headlines because of the many possible implications for criminal cases involving online speech, cyber-bullying, and assisted suicide.

Massachusetts, unlike 40 other states, has no law against assisted suicide, which makes the decision even more phenomenal. Sharon Beckman, a law professor at Boston College, stated:

“Before this case, the law says that a person is responsible for their own suicide . . . That is the default common law and applies no matter what the other person said or whether they handed them the weapon.”
“. . . this verdict is concerning because it reflects a judicial willingness to expand legal liability for another person's suicide, an act which by definition is a completely independent choice . . . Historically, suicide has been considered a superseding act which breaks the chain of legal causation."

It was a particularly daunting decision - made solely by Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz – in light of the fact that the Roy was being treated for depression and had attempted suicide previously. There was no jury at the request of the defense.

“. . . she coerced him or pressured him into doing something that he wasn't in a position to rationally and autonomously decide to do because he was in such a depressive state."

Despite Roy’s history of depression and previous suicide attempt, and despite this clearly being a suicide not a homicide, and despite Massachusetts law having no law against assisted suicide...she was found guilty.

Michelle was 17 at the time and the two troubled teens, who lived some 30 miles apart, were friends, mostly via text messaging. Their friendship is thought to have been based on their mutual struggles with mental health issues. She had a history of eating disorder and both were on psychotropic or mood-stabilizing medications.

It was that which formed the basis of her defense. Psychiatrist Peter Breggin testified that the teen had her own mental health issues and was, he claimed, delusional after becoming "involuntarily intoxicated" by antidepressants. He described her as being "unable to form intent" after switching to a new prescription drug months before Roy's suicide.

The judge did not buy it. He saw her as having willfully and knowingly pushed Roy over the edge, so-to-speak, based on several factors: That she was a “virtual” presence and certainly did or said nothing to dissuade him or elicit any help, and most especially that she told him to get back into a car filled with carbon monoxide after he left the car and seemingly was changing his mind.

The abundance and content of her text messages convicted her – her urgings and continued ongoing pressuring of him to go through with taking his life, and assuring him his parents would get over it. Michelle apparently listened to him take his last painful, choking breaths on the phone and texted another friend of that fact. And in yet another text to a friend said she was responsible, and that her texts, if found on his phone, could put her in prison.

After the fact, Michelle claimed the friends were boyfriend and girlfriend, leading some to speculate that her motive was to be the grieving girlfriend which would enhance her social status at high school. It has been reported that in a text to a friend she used word-for-word dialog from an episode of Glee in which the star’s boyfriend takes his life.

Talk with your kids.

We need family, school, and community-based conversations to set up support for youth who are at-risk of depression, suicide and bullying.

Know the risks of youth suicide which in addition to depression and isolation include academic pressure, alcohol consumption, the loss of a valued relationship, frequent change of residency, and poor family patterns, including the recent divorce of the teen’s parents.

Don’t ever ignore talk suicide or failed attempts as attention grabbers and make sure your children understand that in regards to their friends. In a survey of American high school students, 16% reported considering suicide and 8% reported attempting suicide sometime within the 12 months before taking the survey. Let them know that help is available at http://lostallhope.com/help-me.

Be aware that according to the CDC (2015) suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and for college-age youth and ages 12-18. Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

While youth suicide attempts are more common among girls, adolescent males are more likely to carry out suicide. Be aware that suicide is contagious. 39% of all youth suicides are completed by young people who have lost someone of influence or significance to them to suicide. Your child may be fine but may have a friend, schoolmate or acquaintance in need of help for suicidal thoughts or because of bullying. Use this opportunity and talk to them!

Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems that seem overwhelming and unsurmountable, but in hindsight become minor. Don't give up too soon! If gets better!

  • At 23, Tina Fey was working at a YMCA.
  • At 23, Oprah was fired from her first reporting job.
  • At 24, Stephen King was working as a janitor and living in a trailer.
  • At 28, J.K. Rowling was a suicidal single parent living on welfare.
  • At 30, Harrison Ford was a carpenter.

Talk to your teens – even the happiest most well-adjusted ones. Make sure they know about It Gets Better a program designed to help at-risk LGBT youth, and Born This Way, committed to supporting the wellness of young people, and empowering them to create a kinder and braver world. And have them all put in their phones: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255.

And also talk to them about the serious consequences of bullying. It is not to be ignored or dealt with alone. It needs to be reported.

Forget the old sticks-and-stones adage and create a new mantra:

Words Can Kill!

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