So ruled US juvenile court Judge Lawrence Moniz in Bristol County, Massachusetts,
in a landmark criminal case that could have a wider impact on how courts view
suicide and protected speech in the future.
Michelle Carter, seated beside her attorney Joseph Cataldo, reacts as
Judge Lawrence Moniz finds her guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Photo: Glenn C. Silva
The novel case rested on more than 1000 Facebook and text messages exchanged
between two troubled teenagers over two years.
Conrad Roy was found dead in the cab of his pickup truck in the parking lot of a Kmart
on July 13, 2014, with a tube from a generator pumping in carbon monoxide.
Up to the moment he passed out from the toxic fumes, Carter was on the telephone with
him; when he had doubts and got out of the truck, she ordered him back in.
“She can hear him coughing and can hear the loud noise of the motor,” the judge said
in his ruling Friday. “It constituted wanton and reckless conduct by Ms Carter where there
was a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would arise to Mr Roy.”
“Where one’s action creates a life-threatening risk to another there is a duty to take reasonable
steps to alleviate the risk,” Moniz said.
The notoriety of the case turned Carter, a gaunt blond with dark pursed eyebrows, into a
modern-day villainess in social media, where people tweeted threats such as “I hope you rot
in jail forever,” and, “Michelle Carter is a witch.”
Tears welled up in Carter’s eyes as the verdict was read, but she stood upright and still, as though
she had accepted the eventuality of a conviction.
Now 20, Carter had waived her right to a jury trial, her lawyer reasoning that a judge would assess
her culpability more strictly on the basis of the law.
With sentencing due in August, Carter could face up to 20 years in prison, although such a long
sentence would seem unlikely. Moniz allowed Carter to remain free on bail until her sentencing.
In her texts leading up to Roy’s death, Carter belittled her boyfriend for failing to make good on
previous threats to commit suicide and made him promise he would follow through. She sent him
research on different methods, including hanging and jumping off a high building, and finally settled
on carbon monoxide poisoning. Carter advised Roy to do it away from home so that nobody would
interrupt and stop his death.
“And u can’t break a promise. And just go in a quiet parking lot of something,” she wrote him.
When Roy wrote that he didn’t want to hurt his parents, Carter reassured him: “I think your parents
know you’re in a really bad place. Im not saying they want you to do it, but I honestly feel like they can
Although the case was decided by a county juvenile court judge, legal scholars said it could have a profound
effect on how courts think about suicide in the future.
“It may not set a legal precedent, because I don’t think it does at this level of court, but its notoriety will have
an impact. I think it will embolden more prosecutors to bring cases like this,” said Laurie Levenson of the
Loyola Law School.
Both teenagers had a history of physiological problems. Carter had struggled with anorexia and self-cutting.
Roy had tried to kill himself as many as four times previously. The teenagers had met two years before his
death on vacation with their families in Florida and realised that they lived near each other on the outskirts of
Boston. In their text messages – they rarely saw one another in person – they professed their love for each other,
at one point deciding they would both kill themselves like Romeo and Juliet, but Carter rejected the idea and
focused instead on getting Roy alone to commit suicide.
Prosecutors said that Roy was turning the corner on escaping his depression and would not have killed himself if
not for the pressure from Carter. He had recently earned a maritime captain’s license and was set to attend
Fitchburg State University.
“Every time he came up with an excuse not to do it, she kicked his feet from under him,” prosecutor Katie
Roy’s suicide would allow Carter to play the role of the grieving girlfriend, enhancing her social status at high
school. She wrote posts on Facebook about how she would become an anti-suicide activist and organise a
baseball tournament in his memory, though in Plainville, where she lived – not in his hometown of Mattapoisett,
where most of his friends were.
Carter did not testify. The defence relied heavily on the testimony of a celebrity psychiatrist, Peter R. Breggin,
who has written several books criticising psychiatric medication. He testified that Carter, who was 17 at the time of
Roy’s death, had delusions of grandeur that made her believe that Roy would be better off dead.
“She’s not thinking she’s doing something criminal. … She’s found a way to help her boyfriend,” Breggin told the court.
“He wants to die, he wants to go to heaven … she will help him, just the way he wants it.”
The Carter case also raised novel questions of whether text messages are protected speech and what it means to be
present at the scene of a crime.
Although Carter was more than an hour’s drive away when Roy killed himself, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
found last summer that she was “virtually present” at the time of his death. In allowing the trial to go forward, the court
also wrote there was probable cause to show that “the coercive quality of the defendant’s verbal conduct overwhelmed
whatever willpower the 18-year-old victim had to cope with his depression.”
In the past, prosecutors have not been successful in bringing charges against people who bullied others into suicide.
Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers student, was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other crimes in 2012 after the
suicide of his roommate, whom he had recorded in a romantic encounter with another man. The case was thrown out on
appeal and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Prosecutors decided not to bring manslaughter charged against Lori Drew, a Missouri mother who set up a fake MySpace
account that led to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl and a 2008 conviction for computer fraud was later thrown out.
Los Angeles Times