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Michelle Carter was convicted today of involuntary manslaughter for sending her alleged boyfriend text messages encouraging him to commit suicide. Her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, killed himself in his truck in July 2014, inducing death by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The body of Conrad Roy III was found June 13, 2014 in a Kmart parking lot in Fairhaven, a few miles outside of Boston. Carter, his girlfriend, had sent him texts telling him to kill himself and even suggesting methods of accomplishing that goal. At the time of his suicide, Roy was 18-years old and Carter was 17.

Carter, who is now 20, is on trial in juvenile court in Taunton, Massachusetts for involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution alleges she pushed Roy to take his own life, playing on his predisposition to depression, anxiety, low self-worth and prior suicide attempts. Roy committed suicide using a gas-powered water pump that expelled carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck.

The foundation of the prosecution’s case against Carter is the texts she sent to Roy prior to and as he was dying. There were other texts on Roy’s phone that indicated Carter had tried to assist him deal with his depression. Although Carter and Roy were allegedly in a relationship, prosecutors say they met in 2011 and mostly connected with one another online, meeting in person only a few times in the two years prior to Roy’s death. Their relationship consisted mostly of expressive text messages, and this case will examine how the power of Carters words influenced Roy.

This case raises questions, such as: Can someone be charged and convicted in a death even if they were not with the victim when he or she died? Can someone be adjudicated guilty of killing another based solely on what was said in text messages? And, where does felony murder possibly fit into this case? The answers to these questions are vitally important, particularly in Massachusetts where assisted suicide through coercion is not a crime.

Courts often find liability for a death when the person encouraging an individual who takes their own life is in the same room. However, what if they are online and not in the same room or even in the same city? The answer to that question may well set precedent when the judge rules on this case.

Why the content of the text messages is crucial to this case

The content of the texts between Roy and Carter are vital to this lawsuit as what they say and how it affected Roy is paramount to the outcome. In other words were they of such a nature to constitute involuntary manslaughter?

This key point is important says Colorado criminal defense attorney, Miller Leonard, Esq., Miller Leonard, PC who explains that, “Since the Massachusetts' Supreme Court already ruled that the case could proceed, and the trial court denied the motion for judgment of acquittal, the judge, sitting as the finder of fact, is going to have to determine whether or not the facts of this case are such that the text messages were of such a coercive quality to constitute involuntary manslaughter." "The Supreme Court of Massachusetts indicated that cases like this are subject to a "case-by-case" basis. That is why there is a trial, and that is what the Judge must determine: are the facts sufficient to warrant a conviction?” Leonard added.

Texts from Carter to Roy

“You said you wanted this bad, I knew you weren’t gonna (sic) try hard.” 
“You have to do something quick that will end it without having to worry about the pain.”
“Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself idk (sic) there’s a lot of ways (to commit suicide).”
“Take your life?”
“But the mental hospital would help you. I know you don’t think it would but I’m telling you, if you give them a chance, they can save your life. Part of me wants you to try something and fail just so you can go get help.”
“So what are you gonna do then? Keep being all talk and no action and everyday go thru (sic) saying how badly you want to kill yourself? Or are you gonna try to get better?”
“ … Well in my opinion, I think u (sic) should do the generator because I don’t know much about the pump and with a generator u (sic) can’t fail”
“So I guess you aren’t gonna do it then, all that for nothing.” (text sent the night Roy died)
“I’m just confused like you were so ready and determined.” (text sent the night Roy died)
“No, you’re not, Conrad (going to do it). Last night was it. You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it but u (sic) never do. Its always gonna be that way if u don’t take action. You’re just making it harder on yourself by pushing it off, you just have to do it. Do u wanna do it now?” (text sent prior to Roy getting into truck)
“No? It’s probably the best time now because everyone’s sleeping. Just go somewhere in your truck. And no one’s really out right now because it’s an awkward time. If u don’t do it now you’re never gonna do it. And u can say you’ll do it tomorrow but you probably won’t.” (further texts sent before Roy got into his truck)
“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die.”
“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready …  just do it babe.” (texted just prior to Roy’s death)
“I helped ease him into it and told him it was okay … I could’ve easily stopped him or called the police but I didn’t.” (text to a friend after Roy’s death)

Texts from Roy to Carter
“I keep regretting the past it’s getting me upset.”
“Do you think I should?” (responding to Carter asking if he would take his life)
"I just don't want the pain.”
“I’ve created a monster out of myself the past few years because of my depression, racing thoughts, suicidal thoughts.” (voice over from video Roy recorded a few weeks before his death)
“What I’m doing is looking at myself so negatively.” (voice over from video Roy recorded a few weeks before his death)
“It’s no good, trash, never be successful. Never have a wife, never have kids, never learn.” (voice over from video Roy recorded a few weeks before his death)
“It doesn’t help. Trust me.” (responding to urging to go to mental hospital)
“I can’t get better I already made my decision.”
“I really don’t know what I’m waiting for. . but I have everything lined up.” (texted to Carter the night Roy died)
“Is it too late? Idkk (sic) it’s already light outside. I’m gonna (sic) go back to sleep, love you I’ll text you tomorrow.” (text sent to Carter about proceeding to take his life)

The evidence

According to the prosecution, the evidence they have against Carter is clear and relatively straightforward. They point to multiple texts where they allege Carter pushed Roy to take his own life. Furthermore, one witness indicated Carter mentioned she was on the phone with Roy when he died and that she expressed the wish she could have got him more help.

Police indicated that text messages between the two in 2014 pointed to Carter tiring of Roy constantly contemplating suicide and encouraged him to do it right away. Carter even suggested to Roy that there were a number of ways to kill himself by saying “I bet you’re gonna be like ‘oh, it didn’t work because I didn’t tape the tube right or something like that. You always seem to have an excuse.”

Overtime, Roy did decide to take his own life and went with a prior suggestion Carter had made to use a generator. When he mentioned he had found one, but it was broken, Carter demanded: “ WELL WHEN ARE YOU GETTING IT?” and to take it to get repaired. She also added in another text that if he could not use carbon monoxide then he could, “. . . try the bag or hanging. Hanging is painless and take (sic) like a second if you do it right.” Similar conversations between Roy and Carter continued until July 13 when Roy committed suicide.

The case goes to court

Carter’s case made its way to the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court in 2015. In the summer of 2016, the court stated she could stand trial for her alleged role in Roy’s death. The ratio decidendi indicated Carter’s “virtual presence” when Roy committed suicide and her “constant pressure” on him affected his unstable mental state and constituted enough proof to bring an involuntary manslaughter charge. Carter was indicted and appealed the decision. Should she be convicted, she potentially faces up to 20 years in jail.

Carter’s defense attorney argues that Roy had pre-existing suicidal tendencies evident prior to any relationship he had with Carter and had been shown to have searched online for ways to commit suicide. He was by himself in his truck and he alone made the ultimate decision to kill himself, therefore it was Roy’s objective to commit suicide, not Carter’s, and was therefore not a homicide. Arguably, Carter’s texting encouraged Roy to take his own life. However, what prosecutors need to prove in Massachusetts is whether or not Carter urging Roy to suicide resulted in his death.

According to Daniel Medwed, a criminal justice and law professor at Northeastern University, “There may be an issue on the extent to which she was aware of the risk. She knew he was suicidal, but did she know that he was going to go through with it?”

In rebuttal, to Medwed’s question is the fact that at some point during the time period Conrad was sitting in his truck breathing carbon monoxide, he stepped out of the vehicle and called Carter. He allegedly spoke to her for over 40 minutes and indicated he was having second thoughts about going through with it. She apparently told him to get back in the truck and then stayed on the phone listening for 20 minutes while he died.

The issue in this case is that Roy was 30 miles away from Carter and that ultimately he made the decision to get back into the vehicle. Carter remained a “remote” texting entity, which is what makes this case different that the usual manslaughter case. In the current age of technology, ill-intended texting and other virtual forms of communication can have serious consequences.

Professor David Siegel, at New England Law in Boston, says, “What I think is going to be significant, at least in the facts of this case, is that this was repeated, lengthy electronic communications between two young people. The issue is going to be whether that series of communications between those people under those circumstances amount to wanton and reckless conduct.”

Felony murder in Carter's case?

The concept of "felony murder" or someone being charged with murder without killing a victim may not be applicable in Massachusetts but may be given consideration by the judge when rendering a decision at the end of the trial.

Felony murder laws have existed in some form in the United States since the 19th century. But the most relevant case is a 2012 Indiana case where four unarmed teens and an older friend broke into what they thought was an empty home. The owner, who was asleep upstairs, heard them break in and came downstairs with his gun, killing the older man and hitting one teen in the leg.

The surviving would-be robbers faced up to 55 years in jail for a murder they did not plan, intend or carry out. This issue arose due to a statute called “felony murder.” This type of statute permits defendants to be convicted of murder and possibly face execution, if a death results due to a felony those involved committed – even if they were not the actual murderers. The Indiana Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction for the remaining three failed robbers, as those convicted of felony murder often get tougher sentences than the actual killer.

What the judge in Carter’s case may consider as a result of the Indiana Supreme Court ruling is not her technical guilt in a felony murder, but whether the punishment fits the circumstances of an indirect crime. The other crucial factor that may be considered in the Carter case is that felony murder laws are highly controversial when a case involves children. According to a report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, released in 2005, 26 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole were convicted of felony murder.

Of particular interest and in sympathetic harmony with the facts of the Carter case, Miller vs. Alabama stated in part that “[T]he kinds of homicide that can subject a juvenile offender to life without parole must exclude instances where the juvenile himself neither kills nor intends to kill the victim.” 

About Author

Kerrie Spencer is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine.

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