In February, 22-year-old Michelle Carter was sentenced to 15-months in prison for manslaughter after pressuring her boyfriend Conrad Roy to commit suicide. At the time, WGBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed said he believed the manslaughter conviction against Carter was inappropriate. Since then, he has helped to propose new legislation that would address situations of coercion to commit suicide. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Medwed about this new proposed law. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: [So] what have you been working on, Daniel?
Daniel Medwed: We talked a lot on Morning Edition about how manslaughter was quite a bit of an overreach for Michelle Carter. And several times I said, we should have a targeted law in Massachusetts that deals with coerced suicide. After all, about 40 other states have laws on the books that, to a greater or lesser extent, grapple with assisted suicide as a potential crime. Conrad Roy's family reached out to me and they said, 'Let's pursue that proposal. Let's work on a law that would criminalize coerced suicide, and let's name it 'Conrad's Law.'"
So over the course of many months, I've been working with the family and with some very helpful legislators in the State House — most notably Sen. Barry Finegold and his team from Andover — to come up with a law that is a nice balance between criminalizing this conduct, but also protecting defendants from potential overreaching by prosecutors. And I think the bill that's on the table is a very good one. It would cap the actual criminal sentencing exposure at five years. If you're found guilty of the crime of coerced suicide, you can't spend more than five years in prison. And it's very tight. You would only be charged with this crime if you know that the other person is suicidal [or] has experienced what's called suicidal ideation, and that you've exercised such substantial control over them to effectively coerce them into acting, and/or you've provided them with the means to commit suicide.
Mathieu: If this law had been on the books for the Carter trial, what would have happened? How would it have changed the way both sides approached the case?
Medwed: [It's] so interesting, because if this law had been on the books, we might not have known that much about the Michelle Carter case. What made it such a national story is that it was charged as manslaughter. So a lot of people looked at this case and they said, '[Manslaughter's] a situation where someone starts shooting in a theater or someone who's incredibly drunk drives and kill someone. Telling someone to kill themselves [isn’t manslaughter].' I think a lot of people reacted very viscerally to that charge, at least on the left. And people on the right thought, this should be treated as manslaughter. If there had been this law on the books, I don't know if it would have made such national news, and it might have actually been resolved through a plea bargain, potentially, in a way that wouldn't have resulted in such drama at trial.
Mathieu: How common are coercion cases like these?
Medwed: They're not that common, fortunately. But the effect of this law is really two-fold. One, it is designed to capture those few cases. But second and even more importantly, it's designed to send a deterrent message to people. It's not okay to pressure other people into committing suicide when you know about their suicidal tendencies. It's very important to send this message, especially in this day and age of cyberbullying. And I must admit this is sort of an odd position for me to be in. I'm a former defense lawyer; I've never been on the side of creating a criminal statute. To the extent I've been involved in legislative activities it's been on the defense, to block laws from passing, as opposed to promoting one. But I firmly believe that this is an appropriate compromise that we need in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Mathieu: Did you help them write this law?
Medwed: I did. Based on that conversation I had with Conrad Roy's family, I reached out to Sen. Finegold through his chief of staff, MaryRose Mazzola, who's one of my students at Northeastern. And I had a couple of my Northeastern research assistants, Alex and Sarah, the three of us worked together to draft the law initially. Then over the course of the past few months, we've been tinkering with it, tweaking it and making sure that it passes muster with legal counsel.