Suicide by Text

Like most other Americans, I’ve been following the story of the young man whose girlfriend encouraged and “enforced” his successful suicide attempt.  She chose a trial by judge rather than jury and he found her guilty of negligent manslaughter and sentenced her to only 15 months.  He then stayed her sentence and let her go home pending appeal of his verdict.  She has not served a single day in jail. (CNN coverage of the verdict.)

The young man’s family is understandably angry.  If we can hold people responsible for antagonistic bullying leading to suicide directly or via social media, why can’t we hold someone the victim TRUSTS responsible for the same thing.  She obviously didn’t introduce the idea of suicide as the young man had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts.  But she encouraged him to go through with it generally and specifically to finish killing himself when he expressed doubts during the process.  She didn’t discourage him, she didn’t call for help, she lied and tried establish a false media trail.  She sought out and enjoyed attention given to her role as the grieving girlfriend.  She appears to have based her actions on a popular television character who consolidated her social position using her boyfriend’s death.

Michelle Carter encouraged and incited the suicide of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.  The judge sentenced Carter to a two-and-a-half-year term — with 15 months in jail and the balance suspended plus a period of supervised probation.  The case could spur the Massachusetts legislature to pass a law that makes it a crime to engage in “coercing or encouraging suicide,” such as already exists in about 40 other states.

Bristol Assistant District Attorney Maryclare Flynn recommended a sentence of seven to 12 years in jail, saying Carter “undertook a deliberate, well thought out campaign … for her own personal gain and quest for attention.”  In the end, he was apologizing to her for not being dead, for not dying quickly enough, for being indecisive.

Whether you believe the sentence is too much or too lenient, rapid technological developments and the growing reliance on social media for contact and relationships played a critical role.  We would hold someone who incited rape accountable even if they didn’t participate themselves.  Violence and hate are not protected activities, but the distance provided by social media minimizes the personal impact.  It is easy to suggest or encourage things you wouldn’t normally because you are safely distant, cocooned from the outcomes.  If nothing else, this case has shown that social media can be toxic and everyone shares responsibility for that.