The Puzzle of Inciting Suicide

70 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2018 Last revised: 31 Jan 2019

See all articles by Guyora Binder

Guyora Binder

University at Buffalo Law School

Luis E. Chiesa

State University of New York at Buffalo Law School

Date Written: July 1, 2018

Abstract

In 2017, a Massachusetts court convicted Michelle Carter of manslaughter for encouraging the suicide of Conrad Roy by text message, but imposed a sentence of only 15 months. The conviction was unprecedented in imposing homicide liability for verbal encouragement of apparently voluntary suicide. Yet if Carter killed, her purpose that Roy die arguably merited liability for murder and a much longer sentence. This Article argues that our ambivalence about whether and how much to punish Carter reflects suicide’s dual character as both a harm to be prevented and a choice to be respected. As such, the Carter case requires us to choose between competing conceptions of criminal law, one utilitarian and one libertarian. A utilitarian criminal law seeks to punish inciting suicide to reduce harm. A libertarian criminal law, on the other hand, justifies voluntary suicide as an exercise of liberty, and incitement of suicide as valuable speech. Utilitarian values are implicit in the foreseeability standards prevailing in the law of causation, but libertarian values are implicit in the reluctance of prosecutors to seek, and legislatures to define, homicide liability for assisting suicide. The prevalence of statutes punishing assisting—but not encouraging—suicide as a nonhomicide offense reflects a compromise between these values. These statutes are best interpreted as imposing accomplice liability for conduct left unpunished for two antithetical reasons: it is justified in so far as the suicide is autonomous and excused in so far as the suicide is involuntary. This explains why aiding suicide is punished, but less severely than homicide. Yet even these statutes would not punish Carter’s conduct of encouragement alone. Her conviction although seemingly required by prevailing causation doctrine, is unprecedented.

Keywords: Criminal Law, Suicide, Causation, Complicity, Legal Theory

Suggested Citation

Binder, Guyora and Chiesa, Luis E., The Puzzle of Inciting Suicide (July 1, 2018). 56 American Criminal Law Review 65 (2019); University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-025. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3206656

Guyora Binder (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

528 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-2673 (Phone)
716-645-2640 (Fax)

Luis E. Chiesa

State University of New York at Buffalo Law School ( email )

715 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
53
rank
370,173
Abstract Views
234
PlumX Metrics