Tragic Consequences of Words – Bullying Words Led to Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction

Can mean words create allow a court to hold someone responsible in criminal court for the suicide of another person? According to a recent article by the New York Times on a case in Massachusetts, the answer is yes.

According the article, teenagers in an opposite-sex relationship were dating. The boyfriend had previously had suicidal ideation and friends and family had helped him overcome the feelings. Years later, when he had similar feelings and turned to his girlfriend, she told him to do it. When he got out of a truck he was filling with a lethal gas, she told him to get back in the truck. There were also many other texts, not discussed in detail in the article, but it sounds like they were not supportive.

This case was heard before a judge, not a jury. For the judge, the fact that he got out of the truck and she told him to get back in the truck was  a crucial turning point for her ability to be held criminally responsible.

This is a decision at a trial court level in Massachusetts, which means that it is a case that will require other courts to follow its lead. It does not establish case law (i.e., precedent that courts are required to follow similarly to a statute or written law).

Nevertheless, some cases, in the mere seriousness become part of a cultural identity (i.e., the McDonalds’ coffee burn case) and they influence us. This case could be one of those cases. Words, uttered through technology, miles away from where the suicide occurred were enough to be considered a major factor in why a young man committed suicide.

One of the significant components of this case, from the position of someone who thinks a lot about bullying in schools and how you find ways to address it, is that the girlfriend was struggling significantly with mental health issues. This is consistent with the date from bullying research. Bullies often have greater suicidal ideation than the people they bully.

The issues are rarely ever good guy versus bad guy.  But we use laws to help ensure that we have guidelines to do no harm and for consequences when there is a harm. Technology has altered our lives. Had the boyfriend been alone, without a phone, would he still be alive? Would he, with time to himself and his own thoughts have decided that he wasn’t ready to end his own life? He did get out of the truck.

It would be nice to think that people would not engage in certain behavior because it is harmful. That it wouldn’t matter whether you could “get in trouble” for the behavior, but that you would simply chose not to do things that harm other people. But the reality is, that is not the case. I agree with the parameters the judge applied. The young man got out of his car and she told him to get back in and complete the suicide.

The future is unknown for how we will manage the wild landscape of technology, bad behavior, criminal behavior, and civil liability, but this case and many other laws and pushes for legislation make it clear, that there will be rules that govern the cyber world.