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CAN BULLYING LEAD TO AN INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER CHARGE?

 

A Massachusetts woman’s conviction for involuntary manslaughterwas upheld by that state’s high court after a lower court found her guilty of the charge after she encouraged her boyfriend by text messages to follow through on his suicide. The Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter law is very similar to the law in California. Both states define involuntary manslaughter as act not intended to cause the death of another person but was committed in such a careless way that a death of another occurred. In Massachusetts, the act is defined as “wanton and reckless conduct,” while in California it is defined as “without due caution.”

Some typical examples of involuntary manslaughterinclude the Dr. Conrad Murry/Michael Jackson case where the doctor prescribed what ultimately was a lethal dose of a drug. Another example might be where a worker dies due to a dangerous condition in the workplace and the owner was aware of that condition.

But the Massachusetts case is not the typical manslaughter case. In that case, the young woman’s boyfriend parked his truck in a parking lot and then diverted carbon monoxide from the truck into the cab where he was sitting. He started to have second thoughts and texted his girlfriend. Instead of talking him out of it, she egged him on, telling him to get back in the truck and finish the job. Her text messages included statements such as “the time is right” and “your family will understand and accept it.” Apparently, her boyfriend had been struggling with depression, which made him a “vulnerable person” according the Massachusetts court. The high court found that the “coercive quality” of the young woman’s text messages overwhelmed the compromised willpower of the depressed boyfriend and had it not been for her encouragement, he would not have stepped back into his truck and killed himself.

Now, you might be thinking that makes sense. But the manslaughter law is not so cut and dry. The ACLU among others opposed this conviction on the grounds that it stretched the boundaries of the law and violated the constitutional right to free speech. The New York Times ran an opinion piece arguing that the young woman’s malicious speech did not constitute manslaughter. Unlike some states, Massachusetts does not criminalize the act of convincing someone to commit suicide. As noted by the ACLU and the New York Times piece, the court’s ruling was a “stunning defiance” against free speech principals and took great liberty with the manslaughter law.

That brings us to the question: Can bullying, if it causes another person to kill themselves, justify a manslaughter charge? This will vary from state to state and so far, but there already have been some states that followed through on such charges. Many argue that a manslaughter charge is appropriate in such cases. But you can see how muddy the water can quickly get. Did the person who committed suicide do so only because of the bullying or were there other factors? How much individual choice should be ascribed to the suicidal person? In the Massachusetts case, the facts were more clear-cut, but this is most often not the case.

While this young woman’s conduct was reprehensible, did she actually cause the death of her boyfriend by her text message speech? The issue is not easily resolved and will most certainly be on many states’ agendas as we see the rise of cyber bullying.

Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been practicing in Orange County for 25 years. He will defend your rights to the full extent of the law. If you have a criminal matter you would like to discuss with Mr. Weinberg, he offers a free consultation. You may reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com