The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a 17-year-old girl was properly charged with involuntary manslaughter after goading her boyfriend into killing himself. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Carter.
The victim killed himself in July of 2014 by intentionally inhaling carbon monoxide produced by a gas-powered water pump. The victim had parked his truck in a store parking lot and turned on the water pump, which was next to him in the passenger compartment. The victim had suffered from mental health illnesses since 2011 and previously attempted suicide by overdosing on medication. The victim met the defendant in 2011 and the two teenagers dated sporadically during the ensuing three years. They lived in different towns but were in near constant contact by way of phone calls and texts. The defendant was aware of the victim’s history of mental illness and knew he had attempted suicide.
Following the victim’s death, the police were able to view the text messages that had been sent back and forth between the victim and the defendant. Many of the messages related to suicide and the defendant actively, and aggressively, encouraged the victim to kill himself. The defendant told the victim to stop delaying his suicide, suggested he poison himself with a portable generator, and told him his family would recover from his death. The defendant vowed to look after the victim’s family when he was gone and suggested he kill himself in a parking lot. After the victim was dead, the defendant confided in a friend that she was on the phone with the victim as he was in the process of poisoning himself. At some point, the victim got scared and got out of the truck, and the defendant told him to get back inside. After viewing the victim’s texting history, the Commonwealth indicted the defendant and charged her (in juvenile court) with involuntary manslaughter. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, essentially arguing that her only conduct was talking to the victim which does not satisfy the elements of involuntary manslaughter. A juvenile court judge denied the motion to dismiss and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
Involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unlawful killing unintentionally caused by reckless and wanton conduct. Reckless and wanton conduct is an act that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm to another person will result. This case represents the first time the Supreme Judicial Court has considered if words alone can serve as the basis for reckless and wanton conduct under the involuntary manslaughter statute. The Court concluded that in the context of this case, the defendant’s verbal encouragement to the victim, urging him to commit suicide, can properly be defined as wanton and reckless. The Court took note that the victim appeared to waver as to whether to kill himself when he exited his truck, and it was only after the defendant told him to “get back in” that he completed the act. The Court said an ordinary person in the defendant’s position would have recognized the probable serious consequences of telling the mentally-fragile victim, who had a history of suicidal thoughts, to kill himself. The evidence, according to the Court, suggests the defendant overbore the victim’s will to live. But for the defendant’s statements to the victim, he might not have gotten back into his truck and finished the job.
The Court’s opinion does not mark the end of this case. The Court simply said there is probable cause to charge the defendant and the Commonwealth’s theory of the case is supported by the statute. The case will now go back to the juvenile court for trial, where the Commonwealth will have the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the chilling nature of the text messages written by the defendant (many of which are included in the SJC’s opinion), she may have a hard time convincing a jury she does not belong in jail.