The French Defense

You may have heard about a depressing criminal case here in Massachusetts, in which a young woman, Michelle Carter, was accused of involuntary manslaughter for talking her boyfriend into killing himself. Ms. Carter was found guilty just the other day.

There’s no question that Ms. Carter did an evil thing. I had serious misgivings about the verdict, however — and so apparently did National Review‘s David French, who wrote a brief and lucid item about the verdict. Here’s the gist:

I see two serious problems with this verdict — one moral, the other legal. First, Conrad Roy is responsible for his death. To argue that Carter committed manslaughter is to diminish Roy’s moral agency. It denies his free will. It’s wrong to deny compassion to someone so troubled that they’d attempt suicide, but we can’t move so far in the other direction that we race to find who’s “really” to blame when a person voluntarily takes their own life. It’s still an act of self-murder, and while Carter undoubtedly played a persuasive role, I can’t imagine where we will draw the line. Will we prosecute mean people for manslaughter when troubled teens kill themselves?

Second, there are real First Amendment implications with this verdict. Carter’s actions were reprehensible, but she was sharing with him thoughts and opinions that he may have found persuasive but had the capacity to reject. A legal argument that renders otherwise-protected speech unlawful because it actually persuades would blast a hole in First Amendment jurisprudence.

Exactly right, I think. What Ms. Carter did was monstrous, and the memory of it should haunt her for the rest of her days. But law and conscience are two very different things, and the verdict was mistaken.

Read the rest of Mr. French’s article here.

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8 Comments

  1. guy says

    So….The phrase “F%ck Off and Die!” is now legally binding?

    Oh goodie.

    Posted June 18, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    Everyone knows the French defense is a loser. Do what the Mafia does, and use the Sicilian defense.

    Posted June 18, 2017 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Wilson says

    The law is so arbitrarily applied that you might as well support decisions that you like without worrying too much about the justification, since if you go in front of a judge that’s what WILL be applied to you. Money, deviousness, and luck prevail like in every part of life, not reason

    Posted June 18, 2017 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Tina says

    The crime of “involuntary manslaughter” is different from murder, and it is inappropriate to equate the two. It indicates a carelessness that resulted in the death of another. French himself seems to agree that she bears blame, writing: “she certainly played a key role in an absolutely heartbreaking death.”

    This case is not about the 1st Amendment at all, in any form. But it is a textbook example of why our nation has criminalized “The unintentional killing of another person as the result of performing a lawful act.”(TheLaw.com Dictionary), without specifying the situations under which it should apply.

    Posted June 18, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Tina,

    The crime of “involuntary manslaughter” is different from murder, and it is inappropriate to equate the two. It indicates a carelessness that resulted in the death of another.

    Did we equate the two?

    Also: was Michelle Carter careless about Conrad Roy’s death? This wasn’t a case of leaving a loaded gun where a child might find it, or rat-poison in an orange-juice bottle at the office. Ms. Carter actively and deliberately sought to persuade Mr. Roy to kill himself; she tried to make him die. So in what possible sense was any of that “involuntary”, or “unintentional”?

    Posted June 18, 2017 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Tina says

    Hi Malcolm,

    The level of pushback against a rational verdict, supported by existing case law which the judge cited (even though not required to do so), and the narrative that the verdict has anything to do with “free speech” would suggest that. Involuntary Manslaughter by definition implies a certain level of “not at fault” while still assigning guilt.

    The full verdict by Judge Lawrence Moniz, an experienced juvenile court judge, is instructive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6__qDoNmcwA

    Posted June 19, 2017 at 1:52 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thank you, Tina. We are traveling today, so I’ll watch the video when I can.

    In brief, I ‘ll just say again that I agree that what Ms. Carter did was a terrible moral crime — but the law is not, nor should it be, perfectly congruent with morality.

    Posted June 19, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  8. Josh says

    French’s first point seems to presume the indivisibility of responsibility (or at least a zero-sum game of apportionment). If two gangbangers kick a man to death, would French argue that only one of them could really be the killer, or that each is only culpable for half a murder (or half-culpable for a murder)?

    Posted June 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink