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Involuntary manslaughter conviction sets national precedent

There’s been a landmark ruling in a Massachusetts juvenile court with implications that could reverberate nationwide.

A young woman, now aged 20, has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting her boyfriend messages urging him to kill himself back in 2014. Her boyfriend ultimately went through with the act.

Although the young woman was tried in juvenile court because she was underage at the time of the crime, she still faces a potential 20-year sentence.

Her relationship with the young man who died was mostly carried out online and through text messages — they’d only met a few times in person.

While the young man was deeply troubled and suicidal before they met, his family had hoped he would get better with treatment. Initially, the young woman’s texts also had an encouraging tone.

Later, those texts turned darker. She essentially told him that suicide was okay and an end to his troubles. Then her texts seemed to become bullying, calling him out on his lack of effort and excuses.

On the night that he finally killed himself, he had a moment of doubt and got out of the car that he’d rigged to fill with carbon monoxide. Her texts told him to get back in and die.

Involuntary manslaughter is sometimes called criminally negligent homicide — it generally refers to a killing that results from recklessness. Prosecutors argued, in effect, that texting him taunting messages and urging his actions forward, was the same as shouting “jump” to a man on a skyscraper’s ledge.

This verdict has a couple of implications for the future. First, it establishes how the law can address elements of the modern world, like texting and emails — which have traditionally been regarded as less pervasive or powerful than someone’s actual presence. Now, a text can essentially put you in the room where a crime like this happens.

Second, opponents of the verdict say it could cast a pallor over conversations about end-of-life choices and violates the protections given to free speech.

For now, however, the case stands as a warning to others that what they say — even in a text message — can give rise to criminal charges under the right circumstances.

If you need information related to a criminal defense or to discuss a case of your own, an attorney can provide it.

Source: The Washington Post, “Michelle Carter, who urged her boyfriend to commit suicide, found guilty in his death,” Lindsey Bever and Kristine Phillips, June 16, 2017

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