I was contemplating suicide this week.
Not personally contemplating the actual deed mind you – in fact, it may be more accurate to say that suicide was contemplating me.
You see, our apartment windows face the ocean and the twice-yearly clean by the burly-blokes-with-beards-and-rope is insufficient for my taste in crystal clear views. So it was that I found myself accidentally stuck on a 2 foot wide ledge with no railing, 23 floors high, in a pair of jeans, with no shirt and no phone … and carrying a squeegee mop. A moment before, I had pushed the window that inch too far and, as the lock clicked on the inside with me on the outside, I cursed loudly and creatively. Knowing that my girlfriend was out for at least the next hour, I braced myself hard against the window and settled in for some quiet contemplation.
Given my predicament, it will be of no surprise that my thoughts turned to how a suicidal person must feel at the moment of truth. And that, dear reader, leads me to the legal topic at hand.
In a juvenile court in the US this week, it was alleged that 17 year old Michelle Carter had convinced her 18 year old boyfriend Conrad Roy III to kill himself.
The prosecution case was based on messages exchanged between the couple up to, and including, the moment of his suicide. Messages sent by Miss Carter included and “Don’t be scared. You already made this decision and if you don’t do it tonight you’re gonna be thinking about it all the time and stuff all the rest of your life and be miserable” and “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!”.
While by anyone’s standards, those messages are disconcerting in the extreme, for the Judge hearing the case what really sheeted the charge of involuntary manslaughter home was the couple’s final phone call. As Conrad Roy III, apparently having a last second change of heart, climbed out of the truck he had filled with lethal fumes, Miss Carter (who was over an hour’s drive away) ordered him to get back in and then remained silently on the phone as he died.
At the conclusion of the evidence, Miss Carter was convicted and now awaits sentence on a charge carrying a maximum of 20 years imprisonment.
The legal interest in this series of tragic events lies in significant extensions to the scope of legal responsibility and, in particular, to what extent one’s encouragement of another who is committing an illegal act is itself a criminal offence.
Considering that other similar cases in the States have either not proceeded due to prosecutorial reluctance or led to complete acquittals, it appears that prosecutors there have been frantically trying to wedge their square case into the legislation’s round hole.
It may be that they could learn from legislation in New Zealand and Australia where we have almost custom-tailored offences for this kind of suicide by bullying. Under Queensland’s Criminal Code, procuring, counselling, or aiding another person to kill themselves is itself a crime that carries the same maximum penalty as manslaughter and murder (life imprisonment).
Considering that any right-minded individual would deem that Miss Carter’s actions (and her inactions by remaining on the phone rather than calling authorities to help) warrants the intervention of criminal law and responsibility, maybe the States should be looking down-under for assistance with these issues.
In the meantime, my window cleaning fiasco fortunately led neither to my demise nor a criminal charge, when my girlfriend finally arrived home to rescue me from my folly, I was however immediately tried and found guilty of unfathomable stupidity.
Dan Rawlings, Senior Associate