While two jury actions that were fairly predictable got most of the attention over the weekend, a troubling and potentially far-reaching non-jury verdict slipped by relatively unnoticed.
The predictable cases were the hung jury in the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial and the acquittal of Minneapolis police officer Jeronomo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile. In the Cosby case, the judge disallowed testimony by scores of other women who could have established a pattern of despicable behavior for the comedian, so it came down to a he-said, she-said case. In the Yanez case, the prosecution faced the fact that juries tend to give police officers a lot of deference because they have to make split-second, life-and-death decisions.
In the case that should have gotten more attention, Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter, ruling that the young woman, 17 at the time, recklessly goaded 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy III into suicide with a series of phone calls and texts, and then failed to help him.
The judge didn't say that all of Carter's texts pushed the boy into suicide, but he ruled that her actions at the time of the suicide were a contributing factor:
It was Carter's command during their last conversation, that Roy return to his truck — then filled with toxic fumes — and her subsequent failure to act that rose to the level of criminal behavior.
Moniz noted that Carter sent texts to friends after Roy's death in which she said she knew that the fire and police departments were nearby, about half a mile from the Kmart parking lot where Roy had driven his truck.
Cellphone records showed a 47-minute phone call between Carter and Roy on July 12, 2014, when prosecutors said Roy attached a compression pump to his truck in the Fairhaven parking lot.
“She instructs Mr. Roy to get back into the truck despite knowing all of the feelings he has exchanged with her. All of his ambiguities. All of his fears. His concerns,” Moniz said. “Ms. Carter's actions, and also her failure to act where she had a self-created duty to Mr. Roy because she had put him into that toxic environment, constituted wanton and reckless conduct.”
Moniz said that before finding Carter guilty, he wanted evidence confirming that Carter listened on her cellphone as Roy slowly died. He said he found that evidence in text messages Carter sent friends after Roy's suicide in which she described hearing the loud noise of the generator in the background — and the sound of Roy coughing as he inhaled the carbon monoxide.
As reprehensible as Carter's actions may have been, holding her criminally liable for her boyfriend's death seems highly questionable to me, especially a charge as serious as manslaughter instead of something lesser like aiding in a suicide.
We are all responsible for our own actions. "Suicide" is defined as killing oneself, so nobody is ultimately responsible for Roy's death but Roy. This is one more dangerous extension of the modern trend of holding everybody but the individual responsible. It was the bartender who served the drinks. It was the company that made the gun. It was the radio talk show host who "encouraged a climate of hate." If was the teacher who yelled at a poor student during recess in third grade.
To find Carter guilty of manslaughter is to deny Roy moral authority over his own life, and, really, all of us, the moral responsibility for our own actions. Where do we draw the line? Will any of us be held accountable for anything?
And I don't think the handful of critics who warn of the chilling effect this could have on free speech are exaggerating. This should be especially troubling to those of us in the opinion business, who believe the need to speak our minds, robustly and without fear, is essential to the well-being of a fair and open government. If I'd taken the advice of some of my worst critics in the political arena, I would have been dead a long time ago. Of course, some of them would have been dead before me.
I generally try to steer clear of most slippery slope arguments, but this case is one of the exceptions where it's a frighteningly tangible prospect. If we allow the courts to begin absolving individuals of their personal responsibility for their own actions and lay the blame at the feet of others based solely on their thoughts, words or (in this case) text messages, the First Amendment has taken a massive broadside. From there it's a short stroll to jailing people for expressing opinions on a host of subjects which others may find so offensive that it disconnects them from reality entirely.
And there is one other important issue that I think should be raised. Isn't it likely that Michelle Carter herself is mentally ill? Can someone be that obsessed with suicide, whether it's her own or someone else's, and that not be the case? None of the commentators I've seen address the case have brought this issue up, and it's hard to find it in any of the news coverage (believe me, I looked hard). It was merely alluded to in a couple of stories (including this one in The New York Times).
But she does have mental health issues, and that was brought up at the trial, as this account in BuzzFeed finally makes clear:
Cataldo also pointed to Carter's own "mental health issues" at the time of Roy's death. He said that Carter was "going through her own struggles" and that she was "cutting" and suicidal.
Carter told a counselor that she was "struggling" and felt "overwhelmed" because she had "a boyfriend who had no support," according to Cataldo.
He said that at the time of Roy's suicide, Carter was taking antidepressants — SSRIs — which had side effects including irrational thinking, irritability, becoming frustrated, and lashing out.
"This was a 17-year-old dealing with her own mental health issues," he said.
So let's review. Roy clearly gets a pass because he was mentally ill. He was suffering from depression and had a history of suicidal urges, so he really wasn't "himself." He can't be held responsible for his own actions. Therefore it was Carter's fault.
But Carter had also had suicidal thoughts, had even engaged in cutting, maybe even was taking anti-depressants that might have contributed to her behavior. But she doesn't get a pass for her mental illness? She is held responsible for her own actions?
Either both are responsible for their own actions, despite their mental illnesses, or neither is responsible, because of their mental illnesses. We can't have it both ways.
And any rational way we look at it — both are responsible or neither are — Michelle Carter should walk away. Or tell me where my reasoning is wrong.