The Massachusetts SJC rule on July 1, 2016 that a juvenile can be required to stand trial as an adult for involuntary manslaughter in a case that has drawn national attention, as the juvenile defendant is charged with encouraging another juvenile to commit suicide through text messages. Text messages were a major portion of the evidence presented to the grand jury.
The SJC outlined the facts presented to the grand jury. The grand jury heard evidence that the defendant knew that her boyfriend at the time had a history of mental illness, prior suicie attempts and the court found that many conversations during the time period concerned suicide and the defendant doing the following according to the court, encouraging the victim to commit suicide, chastising him for not doing it, instructing him how and when to do it as well as assuaging his concerns over taking his own life.
The defendant was alleged to have spoken to the victim while he was in the act of committing suicide and sent a text message to another friend saying that she told him to get back into the truck. The SJC further recounted evidence that the defendant understood her role in the victim’s death by trying to delete text message evidence and told another friend that she could have prevented his death.
The SJC held that the role of the court is to ensure that the grand jury had evidence to support probable cause to believe a crime had occurred. Involuntary manslaughter can be proven under two different theories: wanton or reckless conduct or wanton or reckless failure to act.
The defense argued that solely verbal conduct can never overcome someone’s own free will and cannot constitute wanton or reckless conduct. The SJC reasoned that involuntary manslaughter according to its case can be caused when death is self inflicted and cited a case that allowed an involuntary manslaughter charge against two of three participates in a game of Russian Roluette. This was allowed in the case of Commonwealth v. Atencio, 345 Mass. 627 (1963).
The SJC also sited another tragic case from the 1960s where an involuntary manslaughter charge stood despite self-inflicted death. After telling his wife that he was divorcing her in the case of Commonwealth v. Persampieri, 343 Mass. 19 (1961), the wife threatened suicide; the husband said she was chicken and would not do it and helped her load a gun which had its safety off. The defendant told the victim she could reach the trigger if she took her shoes off.
The SJC found the evidence was more than sufficient to support the involuntary manslaughter charge. The Court found that the grand jury heard evidence of a systematic campaign of coercion that was the direct casual link, resulting in the suicide. The SJC stressed that a grand jury could have found that an ordinary person could have realized the gravity of the danger ot the victim by telling him to get back into a truck filled with carbon monoxide and just do it.\
The SJC decision is likely to be an important precedent nationally for similar cases; while a case of this nature is hopefully unlikely to arise again, this will be an important precedent for other bullying type conduct and give prosecutor the ability to press criminal charges. It is likely that legislative action will specifically preclude bullying and similar conduct to reduce the uncertainty and litigation in the future.
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