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Lethal Texting: When Is It a Crime?

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Michelle Carter, the teen convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting a friend to commit suicide, is today's poster child for texting gone way wrong.

Carter faces up to 20 years in prison for telling her ex-boyfriend, as he filled his truck up with carbon monoxide, to finish it. Get back in the truck, she told him.

"The time is right and you're ready, you just need to do it!" the Massachusetts teen texted.

Hard Case

While the facts of the case could evoke hate from any parent whose child is pushed over the edge, there is no law specifically against encouraging suicide in Massachusetts. The Carter case, however, the cold-blooded facts could make law.

"It's true, her words caused great harm, but they didn't kill this young man, he chose to kill himself," says Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami school of law and vice president of the Cyber Rights Initiative.

"Clearly, this verdict reflects the outrage of a community," she told USA Today. "But there's a saying in law: Hard cases sometimes make bad law. That's true here."

Hard Law

Franks said that Massachusetts does not have a statute making it a crime to encourage suicide, although the case could set a precedent on appeal or even prompt legislation.

Meanwhile, California and five other jurisdictions have approved assisted suicide laws. Forty-four states consider it illegal.

Most states also have outlawed texting while driving, holding distracted drivers civilly and criminally for deaths they cause. In any case, the issues have forced lawmakers, courts and judges to look at society and themselves as they mete out justice for those who lethally text.

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