A recent Massachusetts case highlighted the intersection between technology in the hands of teenagers and the law. In that case, a teenager named Michelle Carter texted her boyfriend, Carter Roy III, that he should take his life. One text quoted in the opinion said that Michelle texted him saying “[i]f u don’t do it now you’re never gonna do it.” Evidence offered at trial stated that she knew her boyfriend suffered from mental illness and had previous suicide attempts.
Carter Roy committed suicide, which led police to Michelle’s texts. Prosecutors charged her with involuntary manslaughter for his death. Under Massachusetts law, the crime of involuntary manslaughter is defined as the “unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of the defendant’s wanton or reckless conduct.”
Her lawyer argued that encouraging someone to commit suicide— regardless how forceful —cannot be considered wanton or reckless conduct. The Court rejected this argument, holding that her behavior satisfied the “wanton or reckless” standard. The appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling in that case.
Under Texas Law
A similar scenario under Texas law would be more complicated. Title 5 of the Texas Penal Code defines involuntary manslaughter as “A person commits an offense if he causes the death of an individual by criminal negligence.” In other words, a person who causes death through criminal negligence satisfies the involuntary manslaughter statute.
Next, we need to define “criminal negligence” according to Texas law. Section 6 of the Texas Penal Code defines it as “A person acts with criminal negligence, or is criminally negligent, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.”
To simplify, two things need to occur
- The person is aware or should be aware that a substantial risk will occur; and
- The failure to perceive that risk must be a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would take.
How Would This Case Hold in Texas?
Now take the scenario from the Massachusetts case. Has Michelle’s criminal negligence lead to the death of her boyfriend? Regarding the first prong, based on the facts, she was aware of a substantial risk occurring due to her knowledge of her boyfriend’s highly delicate mental state. For the second prong, although the Massachusetts held such behavior to be wanton, this is a step above carelessness, but not a gross deviation. It may not be usual for an ordinary person to encourage suicide, but that does not necessarily rise to the level of a gross deviation. Seemingly, under Texas law, a jury would rule the teenager not guilty.
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