When I first heard the news of the Michelle Carter case where a young woman was deemed to be criminally negligent for the suicide of a young man who was nominally her boyfriend, I was appalled. But contrary to the manufactured outrage across the manosphere, my outrage was not at the young woman’s behavior but the fact that she has been deemed legally responsible for the act of another individual. An act that is the most selfish thing that any one person can do.
Up until now I have refrained from commenting on this case, and everything that I am about to write on the subject is my simple opinion. In other words, I am not a lawyer. But I’m going to give my opinion anyway because that is my right, just as it is your right to take it or leave it.
The people rejoicing in this judgement as an indictment on a hateful young woman are severely misguided. This decision sets a very dangerous precedent that could very easily go the other way.
Picture the hypothetical situation where a disturbed young lady who has been repeatedly rejected by the man that she thinks she loves decides to take her own life in despair. She leaves a suicide note and its contents include the statement that the man drove her to make this decision. She claims that it is all his fault, that he knew of her problems, and yet he did nothing to help her. Let us posit that she includes many heartfelt and detailed descriptions that are entirely imaginary but that the man in question will have no way of disproving.
I would not like to be in his shoes in the state of Massachusetts.
Quintus Curtius has written a detailed appraisal of the case where he has referred to three other cases of involuntary manslaughter, the crime for which Ms Carter was convicted. Curtius is of the firm opinion that the decision was right and proper. But on examination, the cases that he cites to support the decision do not hold up.
First he cites the 2012 case of Commonwealth v. Pugh, 969 N.E.2d 672 (2012) which set the standard for “wanton or reckless conduct”.
If based on the objective measure of recklessness, the defendant’s actions constitute “wanton or reckless conduct…if an ordinary normal [woman] under the same circumstances would have realized the gravity of the danger.”
The case in question was a woman who decided to give birth unassisted and when things went awry due to a breach birth did not then call for medical help. But in the case the woman’s actions directly influenced the life of the unborn child. There was a clear connection to her actions.
But suicide is entirely different. To take your own life is the most personal and selfish decision that anyone can make. Furthermore, nobody takes their own life based on one bad day. It is inevitably a complex web of personal behavior patterns, internal and external pressures brought on by poor decisions, and deep psychological trauma. There have been numerous instances of medical professionals and caregivers not heeding what in retrospect were clear signs that an individual was about to take his own life, let alone some teenage girl who had all of her own issues to deal with as well.
The ultimate responsibility for one’s own life must lie with each and every one of us. To handball this responsibility onto others should be breathtaking in its logical fallacy. But unfortunately the last 40 years have shown a steady and increasing drive to remove the burden of personal responsibility for our own actions from each and every one of us. Perhaps this legal decision is the logical next step.
Curtius next cites the case of Commonwealth v. Life Care Centers of America Inc., 926 N.E.2d 206 (2010).
In this case, an elderly resident of a nursing home fell down a flight of stairs outside the home and died. The deceased was not wearing a prescribed security bracelet at the time; the bracelet would have set off an alarm and locked the front doors of the facility, thereby preventing her death. The nursing home was indicted for involuntary manslaughter.
The court decision stated the following:
We begin by examining the requirements of the crime of involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is “an unlawful homicide unintentionally caused by an act which constitutes such a disregard of probable harmful consequences to another as to amount to wanton or reckless conduct.”
The act of suicide was performed by the young man in question. In other words, it wasn’t a homicide, it was a suicide. How a suicide can simultaneously be an unlawful homicide is beyond me.
Wanton or reckless conduct generally involves a willful act that is undertaken in disregard of the probable harm to others that may result.
The young girl sent text messages telling the kid to stop going on about offing himself and to just man up and do it. The message itself caused no harm. It was not an act intended to cause harm. The act that caused harm was performed by the young man himself.
Accordingly, when we refer to the intent required to support a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, we refer to the intent to perform the act that causes death and not the intent that a death occur.
Because you can never accurately predict the actions of any individual, how could she possibly have the intent to perform an act that causes death? Or maybe Michelle Carter is able to read the future? And once again, the act that caused death was by the young man’s own hand. He could have just as easily not killed himself after she sent the text messages. Is she then somehow still guilty of wanton and reckless behavior when nothing occurred?
Taken to its next step, with this decision as a precedent it is entirely possible that people will be blackmailed for text messages that they have sent, perhaps while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, or simply because the true intent of the text is unclear. I mean, how many times has something been misinterpreted that you have written on an online forum? The blackmailer can simply state that if he doesn’t get his way then he will kill himself and the other person will be up for involuntary manslaughter. Sounds like a good plot for a thriller if you ask me.
The other very important point as regards to this case that I have been quoting is that the nursing home had a duty of care to the elderly resident. Exactly what duty of care did Ms Carter have to her boyfriend?
The final case that Curtius quotes is Commonwealth v. Levesque, 766 N.E.2d 50 (2002).
In this case, several defendants were indicted for involuntary manslaughter when they negligently caused a fire in a warehouse. During a fight, the homeless defendants knocked over a lighted candle in the warehouse, caused a fire, and then left the building without informing the authorities of the fire. However, the resulting fire was severe and consumed the lives of several firefighters.
The court’s ruling included the following:
Our law, both civil and criminal, imposes on people a duty to act reasonably…[W]e have expressed agreement with its underlying principle. It is consistent with society’s general understanding that certain acts need to be accompanied by some kind of warning by the actor…We agree with this principle and apply it to this case; where one’s actions create a life-threatening risk to another, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk. The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter. Where a defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent the risk he created is reckless and results in death, the defendant can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The parts in bold were highlighted by Curtuis. How exactly does one’s actions create a life-threatening risk to another in the case of suicide? It makes no sense whatsoever. Also, the fire was directly caused by the actions of these men and as such they had a duty of care to report it before it became a grave risk to others. Their direct actions caused the fire. Ms Carters direct actions did not kill her boyfriend. He did that all on his own.
But the really important part has not been highlighted. It is in the last sentence:
Where a defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent the risk he created is reckless and results in death
Ms Carter didn’t create the risk of this young man killing himself. He did that all on his own. Yes, she may have been a willing participant in his own self-destruction but ultimately the act was all of his own. How can it be otherwise?
Many people have sought to make this an argument on freedom of speech. But that is the wrong way of looking at this. The key concept here is direct and indirect actions having consequences and who is ultimately responsible for the outcomes of those actions. Ms Carter’s actions may well fall under the banner of “wanton and reckless” but she had no duty of care for the young man concerned. And her actions were not the predetermine cause of his death. He died by his own hand.
With all of the campus snowflakes running around the US demanding safe spaces and the like, I dread to think what will be next regarded as wanton or reckless conduct in the state of Massachusetts. Perhaps reading aloud the second act of Hamlet? A professor who would be so reckless as to perform such an act should no doubt be held directly responsible for the lives of the students in his class through to perpetuity.
This case is a terrible decision that sets a dreadful precedent and must be revoked on appeal. The awfulness of Ms Carter’s character is immaterial in this regard. I hope for the law’s sake that she wins.