US high court urged to take up texting suicide appeal    

MATT WEST/The Boston Herald via AP, Pool, File.  In this Aug. 3, 2017, file photo Michelle Carter, center, listens to her sentencing for involuntary manslaughter for encouraging 18-year-old Conrad Roy III to kill himself in July of 2014. Her defense attorney Joseph Cataldo stands at left. Lawyers for Carter have appealed her involuntary manslaughter conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Carter's attorneys told the high court in a petition filed Monday that her conviction, based on her "words alone," violated her First Amendment right to free speech. 

BOSTON -- Michelle Carter goaded her troubled boyfriend through texts and phone calls to commit suicide, until he finally took his own life five years ago.

Carter, then 17, was subsequently convicted of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III and sentenced to 15 months in jail.

The case, which drew national headlines, highlighted what lawmakers and legal experts say are difficulties in dealing with those who encourage others to kill themselves.

Under a new proposal, filed by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, Massachusetts would join a majority of other states with laws that make suicide by coercion a crime punishable by jail time.

The legislation, titled "Conrad's Law", would set a maximum sentence of five years in prison for anyone who "intentionally coerces or encourages that person to commit or attempt to commit suicide" using physical acts or mental coercion such as "deceptive or fraudulent manipulations of the other person’s fears, affections or sympathies."

Finegold, who plans to unveil the bill on Wednesday at a Statehouse briefing, said the state's "inadequate laws" on suicide coercion were highlighted by the death of Anna Aslanian, a Lowell High School student who killed herself after years of being bullied.

"Teen suicide has been on the rise for two decades and is now the second-leading cause of death among high schoolers and young adults," Finegold said.

The proposal includes an exemption for physician-assisted suicide, which isn't legal in Massachusetts, with bills to allow the controversial practice being considered on Beacon Hill.

Conrad Roy's mother, Lynn Roy, helped craft the bill named after her son and said she hopes it will "prevent future tragedies."

"Conrad’s Law has nothing to do with seeking justice for my son," Roy said in a statement. "This law has everything to do with preventing this from happening again to others who are struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation."

"If this law is successful in saving one life, then all of this work will be clearly worth it," Roy added.

Carter sent numerous messages to Roy, of Mattapoisett, encouraging him to kill himself in 2014, even after he told her he was too scared to go through with it.

"I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready — just do it babe," she wrote in one text message, according to prosecutors.

"You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die," she wrote in another text.

Carter, of Plainville, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in June 2017 following a bench trial that drew national headlines. A state Superior Court judge determined that Carter caused Roy’s death when she told him to "get back in" his truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide in a Kmart parking lot in Fairhaven.

Her attorneys appealed the conviction to the state Supreme Judicial Court, which rejected their request to overturn it.

"The evidence against the defendant proved that, by her wanton or reckless conduct, she caused the victim’s death by suicide," the court ruled.

Carter's attorneys have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Legal experts say the ruling in the Carter trial set a new precedent in cases involving suicide by coercion, which is relatively uncharted territory for the courts.

"This is breaking new ground," said Peter Elikann, a Boston-based criminal defense attorney who closely followed the case. "Until the Michelle Carter case you had to actively assist with a suicide by providing them with poison or holding a pillow over someone's head. We get into a much more difficult territory when we're talking about the person's mere words."

Elikann said proving intent in cases of "suicide by coercion" will be a tall order for prosecutors, and every case will be different.

"It's going to open up a huge body of law that will be rather difficult to prove, because it's subject to such wide interpretation," Elikann said.

Massachusetts has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation — a status attributed to the state’s tough gun-control laws, access to emergency and mental health care, and years of suicide prevention efforts buttressed by more than $4 million in annual state spending.

Despite those efforts, the number of suicide deaths has been increasing slightly every year for more than a decade, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.

In 2017, there were 682 suicides in Massachusetts — more deaths than those attributed to auto crashes and homicides combined, according to the data. That’s a 8% rise from the previous year and a nearly 60% increase from 2004, when there were 433 suicide deaths in the state, according the department.

Youth suicides in Massachusetts increased from 69 in 2014 to 86 in 2016, according to the latest statistics from the health department.

Nationally, the rate of suicides soared among those ages 15 to 19 by nearly 50% from 2000 and 2017, according to a recent Harvard Medical School study.

Debbie Helms, director of the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, said studies have shown individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts can be influenced by others, but that's not the only factor.

"Suicide is complicated," she said. "There's not one thing that makes someone take their own life. There's usually underlying mental health issues or trauma involved."

Helms said she would prefer to see more state money and resources devoted to suicide prevention and mental health education, instead of trying to hold others accountable.

"I'm not saying toughening the laws wouldn't be effective, but I don't know that it would prevent suicides from happening," she said. "Maybe it will."

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the Samaritans crisis help line at 877-870-4673 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.