Much Ado About Something in the Phone Suicide Case

“You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about.” So said Jackie Chiles, the Seinfeld attorney, when defending his famously do-nothing clients from charges of violating a fictional “good Samaritan” law requiring people to rescue those in need. The last time I quoted that defiant libertarian mantra, the occasion was to urge President Obama to do something to save Syrian civilians from slaughter at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. My point was that even if you don’t have to help anybody, often you should.

This time the occasion is to defend the controversial verdict in the juvenile court case of Commonwealth v. Carter, in which a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter, who was seventeen years old at the time of the incident, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Conrad Roy III, to take his own life. Some have protested that she should not be blamed for an act that he committed. Like the Seinfeld crew, they say, she did nothing. By the time she sat back and awaited Mr. Roy’s demise rather than seeking assistance, however, she had already done plenty. Even if you don’t have to help anybody, that is no license to kill.

One critic of the verdict, a columnist for (appropriately) “Above the Law,” put it this way: “Michelle Carter didn’t save Conrad Roy. That’s not the same as killing him. The law shouldn’t have such a hard time distinguishing between the two.”

Indeed, the law recognizes that distinction. Renowned Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo long ago emphasized the difference between “withholding a benefit” and “working an injury.” The question, as he framed it while serving on the highest court of New York, is whether someone has “launched a force or instrument of harm, or has stopped where inaction is at most a refusal to become an instrument for good.” Ms. Carter’s force was her persuasion; the instrument of harm was her phone. She did not simply withhold from Mr. Roy the benefit of her aid. Through a flood of text messages imploring him to go ahead with his plan, she worked him into a suicidal frenzy, paving the way toward his ultimate injury.

Of course, she did not physically perpetrate the deed, but she facilitated it by dispensing explicit instructions for how her boyfriend should use carbon monoxide to kill himself in his truck: “If you emit 3200 ppm of it for five or ten minutes you will die within a half hour.” She dispelled his doubts: “Everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on.” And she tolerated no delay, urging him repeatedly with Nikean single-mindedness to “just do it.” When soon before his death he texted a friendly “How was your day?,” her response was chilling: “When are you doing it?” He deflected the question by chatting about work, but she cut back to her idée fixe: “When are you gonna do it? Stop ignoring the question.”

She admits . . . that she did nothing,” noted the juvenile court judge. Specifically, he chastised Ms. Carter for failing to call for help or to tell Mr. Roy to get out of his truck once she knew he was on the verge of executing the plan they had hatched. That inaction, however, was not what made her guilty. She was no passive Kitty Genovese-watching bystander. Not only had she goaded him into starting his suicide, but she would not let him stop. The most damning communication came after Mr. Roy had left his truck upon feeling sick from the exhaust fumes, seemingly abandoning his attempt. At that pivotal moment, Ms. Carter called and, as she described later in a text to a friend, “fucken told him to get back in.” He did.

In a blunt illustration of the lack of any legal duty to help fellow humans, an old Restatement of the Law (an authoritative treatise compiled by the American Law Institute) explained that one need not rescue a blind person about to be hit by a car—even if a mere “word” would save the victim. Though that doctrine has understandably endured criticism, it still largely prevails today.

But even defenders of the no-duty rule acknowledge its limited scope. Only for those with no connection to the dangerous situation is callous disregard legally acceptable. A defendant who creates a risky situation before walking away can be responsible for what ensues. Volunteering to help, coupled with reasonable reliance by the victim, can lead to liability. So can a “special relationship.”

Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy apparently had a special relationship. Both were troubled teenagers. She likely thought she was, in the scheme of things, helping her boyfriend rather than hurting him. She deserves leniency in sentencing; she seems to need therapy more than retribution. Nonetheless, regardless of whether she had a duty to rescue her companion, the fact remains that she did not simply do nothing. The judge found her guilty not because of her failure to act as a good Samaritan, but because he thought that, in aiding and abetting in a death, she had acted as a bad American. Even if, as the Seinfeld attorney proclaimed, you don’t have to help people, something else this country is all about is that you can’t help to hurt them.

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