The Innocent Villain: Involuntary Manslaughter by Text

Michelle Carter’s texts instructing her mentally ill online boyfriend to commit suicide offended the social moral code. But the law does not categorize all morally reprehensible behavior as criminal. Commonwealth v. Carter is unprecedented in manslaughter law because Carter was convicted on the theory that she was virtually present as opposed to physically present—at the crime scene. The court’s reasoning is expansive, as the framework it employs is excessively vague and does not provide fair notice to the public of which actions constitute involuntary manslaughter. Disturbingly, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial court’s logic. This Article concludes that a conviction based upon a virtual-presence theory is unconstitutional, as it is void-for-vagueness. Hypotheticals are provided to illustrate how the Carter framework is unworkable when applied to online relationships based on electronic communications. State legislatures, not courts, should regulate this area, providing clear rules on when electronic encouragement of suicide violates the law. States can consider a physical-presence requirement and prohibit prosecutions on this basis. Or, legislators can borrow from aiding and abetting principles to expand their special relationship statutes to include online relationships, creating a duty to report when encouraging another to commit suicide. In either case, the law will provide citizens with bright-line rules to forecast when electronic conduct is subject to criminal sanction.