In a case that has gained national notoriety, Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the July 2014 suicide of Conrad Roy by inhaling carbon monoxide that was produced by a gasoline-powered water pump located in his truck.¹ This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed her conviction dismissing challenges on the basis of lack of causation, the First Amendment and Due Process.
¹ The tragedy has been the subject to a 48 Hours and 20/20 Documentary and a Lifetime movie.
The Facts: Carter and Roy met in 2012 and maintained a long-distance friendship. During that time Roy attempted suicide several times unsuccessfully as he either abandoned the attempt or sought rescue. Carter helped Roy plan his final attempt, downplayed fears about how the impact of his suicide on his family and chastised him for his indecision. In one exchange she texted Roy that he ” ‘better not be bullshiting me and saying you’re gonna do this and then purposely get caught’ and made him promise to commit suicide.
On the night of Roy’s suicide, he had phone exchanges with Carter while he was committing suicide but eventually stepped out of the truck for air.
The judge found that when the defendant realized he had gotten out of the truck, she instructed him to get back in, knowing that it had become a toxic environment and knowing the victim’s fears, doubts, and fragile mental state. The victim followed that instruction.
The court added that Carter, knowing full well that Roy was taking his life at her direction, took no steps to save him, call emergency personnel or his family, or instruct Carter to get out of the truck. The trial court found such conduct to constituted, wanton and reckless conduct that caused the victim’s death.
Causation: The Massachusetts Supreme Court had no trouble finding that Carter’s conduct was wanton and reckless, but said the more difficult question was causation given that it was a suicide. The court explained, however, that once Roy exited the truck for air the train of self-causation was broken.
Once the victim left the truck, the judge found that the defendant overpowered the victim’s will and thus caused his death. As the defendant herself explained, and we repeat due to its importance, “[The victim’s] death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in . . . because I knew he would.
First Amendment: Carter argued that her conviction violated her right to free speech under the First Amendment. The court cited precedent that it “ has never been deemed an abridgment of freedom of speech . . . to make a course of conduct illegal merely because the conduct was in part initiated, evidenced, or carried out by means of language, either spoken, written, or printed.”
The only verbal conduct punished as involuntarymanslaughter has been the wanton or reckless pressuring of avulnerable person to commit suicide, overpowering that person’s will to live and resulting in that person’s death. We are therefore not punishing words alone, as the defendant claims,but reckless or wanton words causing death. The speech at issue is thus integral to a course of criminal conduct and thus does not raise any constitutional problem.
Due Process: Carter also argued that she lacked fair notice that she could be criminally charged for such conduct in violation of the Constitution’s Due Process Clause. The court rejected this argument as well:
It has long been established in our common law that wanton or reckless conduct that causes a person’s death constitutes involuntary manslaughter.