Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts woman who peppered her boyfriend with a barrage of texts urging him to commit suicide, then called him to goad him to go ahead with it, was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter in his death.
Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz concluded Carter, now 20, was responsible for the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.
Moniz’s verdict surprised some legal experts, who expected an acquittal, and drew criticism from free speech advocates, who argued it violates the First Amendment.
Roy, 18, died of carbon monoxide poisoning July 12, 2014, in his pickup truck in a Kmart parking lot in Fairhaven, a waterside town about 55 miles south of Boston near the outer elbow of Cape Cod.
As toxic fumes from a tube hooked to a generator filled the cab of the pickup, Roy somehow overcame the voices of longtime depression that told him to end his life long enough to step out of the truck and into fresh air that could have saved him on that summer’s night.
He told Carter, then 17, that he was afraid, and she responded in a phone conversation, telling him to “get back in” the pick-up, according to a text to a friend.
Judge Moniz seized on those three words.
“This court finds that instructing Mr. Roy to ‘get back in’ the truck constitutes wanton and reckless conduct by Ms. Carter,” Moniz said during the proceeding, televised live across America and followed across the globe.
Under Massachusetts law, “reckless” or “wanton” conduct that poses a high risk of substantial harm constitutes involuntary manslaughter.
Moniz looked at a Carter, who sobbed through most of the 15-minute hearing, and said: “She called no one, and finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.'”
The judge noted Carter had phone numbers for Roy’s mother and sister.
Carter sent the texts that night from about 40 miles away, in Plainville, Mass., goading Roy to take his own life, as he had said he would so many times. Then she listened on the phone as he gasped until his last breath, according to Carter’s texts to friends.
The prosecution made the center of its case a text Carter sent to a friend after Roy’s suicide.
“Sam his death is my fault, like honestly I could have stopped him,” Carter wrote. “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I f—— told him to get back in Sam because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t let him.”
Defense attorneys said no evidence proved what Carter had said to Roy on the phone and that Roy, who had previously attempted suicide, would have killed himself no matter what Carter had said.
“The evidence actually established that Conrad Roy caused his own death by his physical actions and by his own thoughts,” defense attorney Joseph Cataldo said. “You’re dealing with an individual who wanted to take his own life. … He dragged Michelle Carter into this.”
But Moniz said when Roy got out of the truck, it proved he wanted to live.
“He breaks that chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle,” the judge said. “He takes himself out of that toxic environment that it has become.”
Repeatedly, texts show, when Roy expressed his ambivalence about killing himself, Carter urged him to do so.
“You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t,’’ she texted.
In another text, she wrote: “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready … just do it babe.’’
With the verdict, members of both Carter’s and Roy’s families wept in the courtroom.
Carter faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, though experts doubt she’ll receive a lengthy term. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 3.
Prosecutors said Carter wanted to appear to friends as the girlfriend grieving the loss of a boyfriend who committed suicide.
After the verdict, Bristol Assistant District Attorney Katie Rayburn told reporters: “Although we are very pleased with the verdict, in reality there are no winners here. Two families had been torn apart and will be affected by this for years to come. We hope verdict will bring some closure… It’s been an extremely emotionally draining process for everyone involved.”
Roy’s mother, Lynn Roy, grew tearful as she testified Tuesday, recalling that her son had just graduated from high school and gotten his tugboat captain’s license.
“I knew he was a little depressed but I thought … he was doing great,” she said. “I thought everything was moving forward, not backward.”
Friday’s verdict has already begun raising First Amendment questions about the government’s imprisoning people solely for words that lead to someone’s death.
“Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words,” ACLU Legal Director Matthew Segal said hours after the verdict.
“This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.”
He called the death of Roy “a terrible tragedy” but added that no law makes it a crime to encourage, or even persuade, someone to commit suicide.
Roy’s death, Segal said, “is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our Constitution.”
Carter was tried in juvenile court because she sent the texts as a 17-year-old and waived a jury trial.