Homicide by text: Michelle Carter and the death of Conrad Roy
Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never break me—but can they?
It is no secret that with advances in technology, today’s youth are connected to one another more than ever. Distance is no longer an obstacle to creating and growing influential relationships. Unfortunately, at times, the increase in accessibility appears to be a bad thing. The words of those we care about have great influence over us, and teens are especially susceptible to peer pressure. Countless stories of teens taking their own lives influenced by the words of their peers appear in the news. Recently, while visiting BBC’s London offices as part of their work on Prince William’s Taskforce on the Prevention of Cyberbullying, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met with parents of bullied children who had taken their own lives. The death of Conrad Roy driven by the texting hands of his long-distance girlfriend, Michelle Carter, not only exemplifies a societal problem but a legal one as well.
Like many other teens, Roy struggled with anxiety and depression.
On the evening of July 12, 2014, eighteen-year-old Conrad Roy left his home after telling his mother he was going to a friend’s house. He never returned. The next morning, police found Roy in his pickup truck in a Kmart parking lot. Roy had committed suicide, poisoning himself using a gas-powered water pump to fill the cab of his truck with carbon monoxide. The evidence initially indicated that his death was a suicide, and the medical examiner agreed. But things took a drastic turn when investigators began looking through Roy’s cell phone. Thousands of messages between Roy and seventeen-year-old Michelle Carter would soon be the subject of a highly-publicized criminal case involving a question of first impression in the Massachusetts courts, with the answer having the potential to create a far-reaching precedent.
Roy grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Prior to his death, Roy graduated high school with honors and had been accepted to a local university to study business. The future looked bright for this young man, but like many other teens, Roy struggled with anxiety and depression. He posted videos online where he documented his feelings and admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Roy attempted to commit suicide multiple times between 2012 and 2014, although each time Roy abandoned his attempt or sought rescue.
In 2012, Roy met Michelle Carter in Florida when both were there visiting relatives. Coincidentally, Carter lived only thirty-five miles from Roy’s home. When their vacations were over, the two kept in contact. Although they lived only a short drive from one another, they met in person only a few times. However, the two maintained a particularly close digital relationship made up of mostly text messages and phone conversations.
If convicted, Michelle Carter would be held criminally responsible for the death of Roy because she directed and encouraged him to end his life.
Text messages from the weeks leading up to Roy’s death indicated that Carter offered Roy advice on when and how to end his life, encouraged him to do so, eased his concerns, and became frustrated when he delayed. When she advised him on how to kill himself, Carter said “in my opinion, I think u should do the generator because I don’t know much about the pump and with a generator u can’t fail.” When she advised him on where to kill himself, Carter said “[s]omehere kinda private but not sketchy. Just park your car and sit there and it will take like 20 mins. Its not a big deal.” She also eased his doubts on ending his life; Carter said “You’re so hesitant because you keep overthinking it and pushing it off. You just need to do it Conrad. The more you push it off, the more it will eat at you. You’re ready and prepared. All you have to do is turn the generator on and you bee free and happy. No more pushing it off, no more waiting.” Finally, expressing her frustration in his delays, Carter said “SEE THATS WHAT I MEAN. YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF! You just said you were gonna do it tonight and now you’re saying eventually. . . .”
Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and if convicted, would be held criminally responsible for the death of Roy because she directed and encouraged him to end his life. At her trial, over 4,000 text messages between the pair were offered into evidence. The judge’s ultimate decision and the fate of Michelle Carter rested heavily on the words contained in the messages. The facts of this so-called “texting suicide case” illustrate the tension between the government’s need to protect the lives of their citizens and the constitutionally grounded protection of even the most egregious speech. Moreover, the case presents two complex legal questions. Can a person legally cause the suicide of another? Can words alone kill?
“His death is my fault. . .”
Suffolk University Law Professor Rosanna Cavallaro said in an article with a Boston newstation that the first question (whether a person can legally cause the suicide of another) has already been answered by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Carter when it declined to dismiss Carter’s indictment. The motion argued that, as a matter of law, words alone could not sustain a manslaughter charge. A unanimous court firmly rejected that argument.
In Massachusetts, involuntary manslaughter is defined as “an unlawful killing unintentionally caused by wanton and reckless conduct.” Further, Massachusetts defines wanton or reckless conduct as “conduct that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. It is conduct involving a grave risk of harm to another that a person undertakes with indifference to or disregard of the consequences of such action.”
Due to the Massachusetts definition of involuntary manslaughter, the case against Carter centers around one particularly disturbing text Carter sent to a friend in September of 2014, two months after Roy’s death. Carter’s text stated, “His death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with h[im] and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I f******g told him to get back in because I knew he would do it all over again the next day. . . .”
Carter’s instruction to Roy to get back into the truck, when she knew that the environment in the truck was becoming toxic, constituted wanton and reckless conduct.
Carter waived her right to a jury trial and a single judge, Judge Lawrence Moniz, found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Roy, subjecting her to punishment of up to twenty years in prison. After a sentencing hearing, Moniz sentenced Carter to two and half years in prison, fifteen months of which to be served, followed by five years of probation. Moniz stayed her sentence and allowed her to remain free until her appeals in the Massachusetts courts conclude. He emphasized that the sentence would be stayed only as her case moves through the Massachusetts courts indicating the possibility that the case might move beyond the state court level.
When Judge Moniz explained the reasoning behind his verdict, he began with the fact that Roy broke the chain of self-causation when he exited the vehicle, an action consistent with his earlier attempts at suicide. Moniz stated that Carter’s instruction to Roy to get back into the truck, when she knew that the environment in the truck was becoming toxic, constituted wanton and reckless conduct and created a situation where there was a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to Roy. He further pointed to Carter’s failure to act on her knowledge of the toxic environment in the truck, citing Commonwealth v. Levesque, which provides that “where one’s actions create a life-threatening risk to another, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk. The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter.” Judge Moniz further stated that “Carter failed to notify the police, Roy’s family, or issue a simple additional instruction—’get out of the truck.’” In yet another text, Carter admits that she could have saved his life, but simply decided against it. She wrote, “I helped [ease] him into it and told him it was okay, I was talking to him on the phone when he did it I could have easily stopped him or called the police but I didn’t.”
Speech directed to incite or produce imminent lawless action that is likely to produce such action is not protected under the First Amendment.
Although Carter has been found guilty, the complexity of the legal issues involved motivated Carter’s counsel to appeal her case to the highest court in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court, opening up the possibility that Carter’s conviction could be vacated. Carter’s lawyers argue for that result partially on the basis that the application of the law in this case unlawfully penalizes speech protected under the First Amendment.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Speech is broadly protected under our Constitution. The Supreme Court has interpreted the amendment to protect even the most hateful, offensive, and obscene speech. But what about when a person’s words result in another person’s death?
In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional guarantees of free speech do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of violating law except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Therefore, speech directed to incite or produce imminent lawless action that is likely to produce such action is notprotected under the First Amendment. As Judge Moniz explained, Carter’s speech directing Roy to ‘get back in the truck’ created a high likelihood that Roy would then immediately inflict deadly force against himself. Accordingly, Carter’s words appear to fit squarely within the type of speech excepted from First Amendment protection.
Alternatively, as pointed out by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on Carter’s first appeal, if the Court were to find that Carter’s speech is protected by the First Amendment under the Brandenburg test, prohibitions on speech may be allowed on other grounds. Criminalization of speech is otherwise permitted if, and only if, the government can provide a compellinginterest in prohibiting the speech and the prohibition on that speech is narrowly tailored to achieving that end. “Compelling”, as used by the Supreme Court, refers to the societal importance of the government’s reasons for enacting the law. For a law to be narrowly tailored, the law must not prohibit more speech than necessary to achieve its goal.
“[T]he defendant cannot escape liability just because she happened to use ‘words to carry out [her] illegal [act].’”
Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts released a statement the day Carter was convicted stating that “Mr. Roy’s death is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution. . . .This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.” However, in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of the United States and under the laws of Massachusetts, this criticism might be misplaced.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard oral arguments for Carter’s appeal on October 4, 2018. On February 6, 2019, the Court decided Carter’s fate. The Court stated that Carter’s First Amendment claim “lack[s] merit.” The Court stated that “the principle that a defendant might be charged and convicted of a homicide offense merely for ‘repeatedly and frequently advis[ing] and urg[ing] [a victim] to destroy himself,’ with no physical assistance can be found in centuries-old Massachusetts common law.” The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts noted that the Supreme Court of the United States has held that speech used as an integral part of criminal conduct is not protected by the First Amendment. The Court upheld Carter’s conviction on that basis and reasoned alternatively that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a compelling interest in preserving human life sufficient to enact a prohibition on the “wanton or reckless pressuring of a person to commit suicide that overpowers that person’s will to live”.
As tragic as the facts of this case are, it illustrates the extreme influence that teens can have over one another. While occasionally, the unfaltering protections of the Constitution prevent criminalization of bad acts to necessarily protect quintessential rights to freedom, that is not the case here. In the words of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, “[t]he defendant cannot escape liability just because she happened to use ‘words to carry out [her] illegal [act].’” Carter will now serve her fifteen-month sentence, followed by five years of probation, for her conduct that resulted in the death of eighteen-year-old Conrad Roy.