TAUNTON — The judge’s verdict in the manslaughter trial of Michelle Carter has garnered the criticism of free speech advocates who see “dangerous precedent.”
Conrad Roy III’s death “is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement Friday.
“There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide. Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words,” Segal said.
“This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions. The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy’s death. If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved across the Commonwealth,” Segal added.
The ACLU had filed a friend-of-the-court brief when Carter’s case went to the state Supreme Judicial Court last year. The court declined to dismiss the charge in a unanimous ruling which found that Carter established a “virtual presence” through texting and phone calls.
Patrick Noonan, a Brockton defense lawyer, who watched the verdict on television, said the case will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
“I think this sets a dangerous precedent,” Noonan said. “You have to be careful what you say now. It wasn’t hate speech. It wasn’t true threats.”
In his ruling, Juvenile Judge Lawrence Moniz concentrated on Carter’s actions on instructing Roy to “get back inside” the truck and said she was aware of the danger because she could hear the water pump while on the phone with Roy. Moniz said Carter had a duty to call for help once he got back in the vehicle. But Noonan disagreed.
“You’re talking about a little speculation about what is happening in that kid’s mind,” Noonan said.
In issuing his guilty verdict, Moniz also cited two legal cases as precedents for his involuntary manslaughter ruling.
The first and more well-known case was the deadly 1999 fire that killed six Worcester firefighters in which a homeless couple couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The firefighters were killed when they rushed in to save the couple thought to be living inside an abandoned warehouse.
The homeless couple, Thomas Levesque and Julie Ann King, admitted to police that they accidentally started the fire when they knocked over a lit candle during an argument. The couple fled the warehouse and never called the fire department, despite having a cellphone and passing by several pay phones.
The couple, who had mental impairments, received probation and the charges were eventually dismissed.
Moniz also cited a 200-year-old case involving a prison inmate who convinced and instructed a second inmate to hang himself in his cell hours before he was to be executed.