Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Free Speech Or Crime?

Today’s post is a philosophical question about a recent crime. The case involves a teenage girl who encouraged her depressed boyfriend to kill himself until he finally did it. The question is: should this be a crime?

Here are the details. The girl’s name is Michelle Carter. For weeks, she apparently encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself. She knew at the time that he had struggled with depression and had previously attempted suicide. At the end, she actually spoke to him as he sat in a garage inhaling carbon monoxide fumes from his truck. He apparently changed his mind and left the garage, only for her to tell him to go back and “get back in” his truck. He did and died.

She was then charged with manslaughter and the case was appealed. At the appeal, the judges asked the attorneys: “when did this cross the line – when did these words cross the line [to manslaughter]?”

That is my question to you too. Was this manslaughter/murder (lets ignore the distinction) or was this just cruelty but not a crime? Can words ever reach that point that they become a crime?

My initial instinct tells me her words should not be considered a crime. Why? Because ultimately it was the choice of this young man to kill himself and he had the power within himself to simply tell her to f-off; she did not force him. But then I wonder about the issue of depression. It’s become pretty clear that depression is akin to alcohol in the sense that it makes people susceptible to doing very stupid things... it lifts the normal restraints on behavior. When you think of it that way, it’s a bit like giving drugs to someone who is addicted. Yes, the addict has the power to say no, but we all know that power is a bit of a fiction because their addiction will defeat their will power in almost every instance. So should knowing someone is depressed and suicidal, and then pushing them to kill themselves be a crime? I’m actually leaning toward saying that it should be because I suspect the victim is pretty helpless to protect themselves in this situation.

So where would I draw the line?

Well, I think there needs to be knowledge of the depression and the strength of the depression. It can’t just be someone who is a little down now and then; it needs to be someone who is truly susceptible to taking action based on your words. Secondly, I think there needs to be some fiduciary relationship where the normal distrust of society does not apply. In other words, we all know not to rely on the words of strangers, but that limit breaks down once you are dealing with someone in a fiduciary relationship, i.e. a relationship of trust – like a doctor, a lawyer, a guardian, a parent, or a spouse.

Interestingly, if you meet these elements, then I personally would not care if you encouraged it only a couple times or if you dogged the person over the issue as this woman did. The fact that you pushed the person at all should be a crime.

But what about a situation where a group of kids “bully” another kid until that kid kills themselves? In this case, I don’t see the fiduciary relationship, so while those children are cruel and deserve a tremendous amount of scorn and punishment, I would not call that murder because there is no relationship of trust there which they are exploiting. Or am I wrong in that? You tell me... should the advocacy of suicide always be a crime just by itself?

All that said, there is one more point to make. While a situation like this raises an interesting philosophical question of when mere verbal encouragement can be considered causation, it also shows us how pathetic the little whiners at colleges are these days. They cry like broken children over things they find unpleasant, but they know nothing of true cruelty, like that displayed by this Carter girl. They are whining over trivia, and for that, they deserve contempt.



LL said...

In some states there is a statue for 'aiding and abetting a suicide' (California Penal Code 401). I think that fits better than manslaughter.

Anthony said...

Sounds like a textbook case of depraved heart murder to me. I'm be fine with the girl spending the rest of her life in jail. Saving taxpayers money and killing her quickly would be the optimal way to dispose of that sociopath (drawn out appeals vastly inflate the costs of death sentences IIRC) but that's not realistic.


In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is an action where a defendant acts with a "depraved indifference" to human life and where such act results in a death. In a depraved-heart murder, defendants commit an act even though they know their act runs an unusually high risk of causing death or serious bodily harm to someone else. If the risk of death or bodily harm is great enough, ignoring it demonstrates a "depraved indifference" to human life and the resulting death is considered to have been committed with malice aforethought.[1][2] In some states, depraved-heart killings constitute second-degree murder,[3] while in others, the act would be charged with varying degrees of manslaughter.[4]

BevfromNYC said...

I am going with Anthony on this one - depraved indifference - starting at the point where he interrupted his carbon monoxide suicide and then she encouraged him to go back and kill himself. She did not take him out of the dangerous situation.

HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER - it sounds like she has been in the situation many times before with her boyfriend and used this method to stop him in the past. It just didn't work this time. And most likely he has threatened her with suicide if she left him. More facts are needed to come to a just and merciful verdict.

BevfromNYC said...

LL - I think the law in CA relates to "assisted suicide" as in the Dr. Kavorkian-style where one actually actively gives the suicidal person the actual physical means to kill themselves like a drug or gun. Though I am not sure of that.

BevfromNYC said...

BTW, Andrew, excellent topic!

Kit said...

Bev makes a point, so I'll lean towards Andrew, maybe. In abusive relationships threats of suicide, as well as poorly-planned suicide attempts, are used as a form of emotional blackmail to keep the other from leaving.

I am not saying this is such a case, but it could lead to prosecutors to start going after a person who finally got frustrated and said or texted, "Go ahead, do it!"

From Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple, "The Rush from Judgement":

"I know from experience that such a man might take an overdose as a form of emotional blackmail: the vast majority of male overdoses in my ward are of men who have beaten their women – the overdoses serve the dual function of blackmailing the women into remaining with them and of presenting themselves as the victims rather than the perpetrators of their own violence."

Kit said...

I should point out this does not appear to have been such a case. My concern is that certain prosecutors might use it in such instances.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Bev! I thought it was interesting too. Part of me really hates the idea of criminalizing non-conduct because I do believe that people should be responsible for their own actions and he ultimately made the decision to kill himself.

But then... this seems like a case where his free will was compromised.

It's a hard decision either way.

I hadn't heard that that she had done this before to stop him. Interesting. That's what juries are for though, separating out what really happened.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Interesting. I would bet that one day that law will be struck down by the court.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, That's probably where this fits. My bigger question though is where should we draw the line? Or should we draw a line at all? For example, if someone yells into a crowd, "Go kill yourselves, a-holes!" and someone does, I don't think that person should be prosecuted. But if they say it to their child, then I think they should.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I haven't seen it, but the California law is probably aimed at assisted suicide, but it also is probably incredibly broad so they can get anyone who helps. It seems like that issue is fading though for some reason.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's true and you definitely don't want that, where people get charged for rejected what is basically emotional blackmail.

Though, let me throw this out... OR would we be better of criminalizing it entirely and hopefully removing it as something that is acceptable to say even in a fit of anger? Perhaps we want people to say "leave me alone" rather than "go ahead and do it"?

I'm not sure on that, but I do see some merit to the idea.

tryanmax said...

If the advocacy of suicide were a crime just by itself:
- the Twitterati would seek to prosecute anyone who ever told another to "go kill yourself."
- a large swathe of the environmental movement would be criminalized.
- it would constitute a de facto ban on assisted suicide, since you can't very well do it without talking about it first.

All in all, I think such a ban would more adversely affect the political left, but I'd still be against it just because I occasionally like to tell someone to stick their head in a bucket of water three times and pull it out twice.

On the subject of being "bullied" to death, I think you've devised a useful distinction in terms of fiduciary relationships. Besides, what is the difference between bullying and harassment? Even if one marks a distinction, it would be a hard argument that bullying doesn't escalate to harassment well before it inspires someone to take their own life.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this should be murder/manslaughter or anything related to his death. This girl does sound like a sociopath but you can't criminilize everything that results in a tragedy just because it resulted in a tragedy. This starts you down the Good Intentions Slope, which as all conservatives know, is covered with ice.
In Ohio we have a stalking law, in which "two or more contacts,closely related in time, for the purpose of causing emotional distress" constitutes Stalking. If this guy was a minor, and his parents were aware of the influence the girlfriend had on him they could have used that to keep her away from him. Or they could have gone the civil court route and gotten a protection order to keep her away from him. Of course, having raised three teenagers I know that's a big "If."
If he was an adult he could have used those tools himself, but in his emotional state he may not have been able to recognize the situation for what it was.
At any rate, as for my two cents worth, emotionally manipulating someone to commit suicide, although it's reprehensible, should not be a crime.
Good column.

BevfromNYC said...

I hadn't heard that that she had done this before to stop him.
Re: her possible being a victim of emotional blackmail.

Andrew - Honestly, I just extrapolated that from what you wrote - "She knew at the time that he had struggled with depression and had previously attempted suicide." I probably jumped to the wrong conclusion. But the chances of him trying to kill himself before while with her are probably very high. And that is exactly why we have courts and juries to sort these things out.

And if she was emotionally blackmailed, is the only difference from the "burning bed" scenario just actually directly killing the abuser instead of allowing the abuser to kill himself? Are women (or men) who are emotionally blackmailed and abused responsible for their actions? Maybe that is a topic for another day...

tryanmax said...

GypsyTyger, your comment prompted 2 more cents from me. I agree that not everything which results in a tragedy is necessarily criminal. I'll even go further and say that even if responsibility for a tragedy can be firmly placed on a person or persons and their actions, it may not always be criminal.

All that said, I still think this girl deserves to, at very least, stand trial. It may not be as straightforward as if she had killed the boy with her own hands, but given the circumstances, she should own up for what she's done. So I guess it's not so much a question of what she did as it is a question of what do we call it?

One final thought, just because I think she ought to be criminally liable after the fact, that doesn't mean I think the law could have stepped in at any point prior. If the boy had said no after she had told him to get back in there, I would say she's sick and mean, but no harm, no foul.

tryanmax said...

Bev, that is a topic I would very much like to get into someday. Put a pin in that for one of your articles.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, It would definitely affect the left more than the right, that's for sure. And it would definitely change the internet if it was enforceable. I wonder if it might not be good for society to bring some level of civility to the net? I'm not actually thinking of criminalizing this stuff, but I'm thinking it might be wise to require some sort of identifying marks when people go online so they can be identified just as they could be in real life. That would probably dramatically slash a lot of the hate and trolling.

Just a thought.

I think the fiduciary requirement is a good one for any sort of emotional harm claim honestly. It strikes me as a good way to distinguish between those who could truly cause harm and those who are just jerks and who should be ignored.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks GypsyTyger. Excellent contribution! I'm honestly not sure there is a right answer here and I can definitely see both sides. And I certainly agree about the slippery slope... which we know liberals love to race down at full speed.

That said, I am leaning toward seeing this as criminal.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I haven't heard more details than what is above. According to the prosecution, she was actively encouraging him to kill himself for some time. I haven't see a defense argument except that this shouldn't be a crime. It will be interesting to see if they go that route at trial... assuming there is a trial.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts. And thinking about this, I wonder how she came to be prosecuted. From the way it sounds she and her boyfriend were the only people there when he died, or else someone else could have either ntervened or been held liable alongside her. So how did the police find out about this? She must have bragged to someone.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's a good question too. Should she have been liable even if he hadn't killed himself? If you are talking straight up murder and attempted murder, then liability attaches the moment you take the first act to make it happen. In this case, she took all the acts she needed to make it happen, it just didn't work (in your scenario). So shouldn't she still be charged for the same thing?

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I believe (but am not certain) that she texted this stuff to him, and the police saw the texts after he died.

Anonymous said...

Andrew; Thanks for your response as well. I didn't mean to ignore you! When I responded to Tryanmax your comment wasn't up yet. Do you know how she came to be linked to his death? I mean obviously somebody found his body and called 911. But how did anybody find out that she was with him? Just curious.

BevfromNYC said...

Oh, wait...she wasn't even in the house when he killed himself in the garage? This was all done by text message and cellphone calls? Interesting...that's different somehow to me.

AndrewPrice said...

Ok, I looked it up for more details. It was a long-distance relationship - 50 miles apart, and they hadn't seen each other in over a year. She lives in Massachusetts, by the way. They got the information from her cell phone. She was texting him to do it. One text read:

“When are you doing it?” Carter allegedly asked Roy repeatedly through text message. She added: “You better not be bullshitting me and saying you gonna do this and then purposely get caught.”

The defense is claiming he tried to get them both to do it, like a suicide pact.

His prior suicide attempts led to hospitalization before she knew him, but she knew about it.

BevfromNYC said...

Wow, okay, that's even more interesting. If it was an agreed upon "suicide pact" then, apparently she had no intention of committing suicide herself since she lived to tell the tale and did not even attempt it. Just on the face, she could have wanted to see someone die at her suggestion. It depends on who contacted whom first after that year-long break.

Or maybe she was just too young and stupid to understand that it wasn't a joke or fantasy.

AndrewPrice said...

I'll tell you what, Bev. Sarcasm does not come across in text messages. So, she better pray that she was very explicit in considering this a joke or that she can produce texts of him trying to encouraging her and her trying to back out. Otherwise, messages like the one I quoted will doom her.

BTW, she faces up to 20 years

AndrewPrice said...

OT: As an update to the other day, this is what worries me. There's now electoral college polling data which shows that Trump and Cruz both lose badly to Hillary (with Cruz doing slightly worse), whereas Kasich beats Hillary handily. But I don't see Kasich having a chance at the nomination.

"The stupid party" strikes again...


tryanmax said...

Andrew, I agree it's difficult. I have trouble conflating speech with action in general. But I'm outside the main in that regard. I think it's stupid to defend flag burning as free speech. Flag burning is perfectly defensible without being designated speech.

Anthony said...

Looking at her tweets, she steadily told the guy to kill himself. There is no indication he thought she was going to kill herself, let alone pressured her to do so.

Quickly after he killed himself she made herself the grieving girlfriend and expressed bewilderment and sadness at his death, misrepresented her role in his death and started fundraising in his name though if I were a betting man I'd bet her motive was fame rather than money. Textbook sociopathic behavior.



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