The Michelle Carter Case: Sometimes Judges Make Law
July 5, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a decision allowing the prosecution of Michelle Carter for involuntary manslaughter to go forward. Her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, committed suicide after Carter had urged him on, at one point telling him to get back in his car to let the exhaust do its work. Sample text messages include:
Defendant: “So are you sure you don’t wanna [kill yourself] tonight?”
Victim: “what do you mean am I sure?”
Defendant: “Like, are you definitely not doing it tonight?”
Victim: “Idk yet I’ll let you know”
Defendant: “Because I’ll stay up with you if you wanna do it tonight”
Victim: “another day wouldn’t hurt”
Defendant: “You can’t keep pushing it off, tho, that’s all you keep doing”
Defendant: “So I guess you aren’t gonna do it then, all that for nothing”
Defendant: “I’m just confused like you were so ready and determined”
Victim: “I am gonna eventually”
Victim: “I really don’t know what I’m waiting for… but I have everything lined up”
Defendant: “No, you’re not, Conrad. Last night was it. You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it but u never do. Its always gonna be that way if u don’t take action”
Defendant: “You’re just making it harder on yourself by pushing it off, you just have to do it.”
The eerie thing about these exchanges is that Carter doesn’t seem to be angry at Roy or taunting him. They read more like she’s urging Roy to get something unpleasant over with quickly, as if she was getting him to rip off a bandage. When Roy worries about his family’s reaction to the news, she promises to take care of them and help them understand that there was nothing they could have done for him. At one point, she essentially tells to fish or cut bait; saying that either he should either go through with it or that she would get him “help.” After Roy’s she texted a friend of hers:
Sam, [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 Sam because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldnt have him live the way he was living anymore I couldnt do it I wouldnt let him. (Emphasis added.)
This is speculation, but I would bet a week’s salary that Carter was either suicidal herself or had attempted suicide in the past. What comes in Roy’s texts is his reluctance; what comes through in hers is her attitude towards suicide as an acceptable option. She didn’t want him dead because of malice, but her texts make it look like she honestly thought that suicide is what was best for him.
Carter was charged as a juvenile with involuntary manslaughter, which in Massachusetts is defined as a death resulting from “wanton or reckless conduct” on the part of the defendant. “Wanton or reckless conduct” is further defined as “intentional conduct . . . involv[ing] a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.” The significance of this case is that this is the first time that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has considered whether words alone (meaning, Carter’s texts and phone calls alone) is enough to establish criminal liability.
The Court held that it did. It based its decision in part on two prior cases. In the first one, Commonwealth v. Atencio, a defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a game of Russian roulette, in which another participant died. The second, Commonwealth v. Perasampieri, was a case where a husband taunted his wife into shooting herself during an argument, after having loaded the gun and handing it to her, knowing his wife had a history of suicide attempts.
Carter argued that
because she neither was physically present when the victim killed himself nor provided the victim with the instrument with which he killed himself, she did not cause his death by wanton or reckless conduct. […] Effectively, the argument is that verbal conduct can never overcome a person’s willpower to live, and therefore cannot be the cause of a suicide. We disagree.
The Court held instead that:
The circumstances of the situation dictate whether the conduct is or is not wanton or reckless. We need not — and indeed cannot — define where on the spectrum between speech and physical acts involuntary manslaughter must fall. Instead, the inquiry must be made on a case-by-case basis.
One of the bugaboos of the legal system are judges “legislating from the bench.” 99% of the time, that’s a stupid criticism. In this case, the Court was confronted with a unique set of circumstances that it had never seen before: a person urging suicide on another despite not being physically present or even in the same town.
So the Court examined the relevant precedent, the facts of the case, and determined a new rule; specifically, that words alone could constitute involuntary manslaughter. Agree or disagree with the decision, that’s how the system is supposed to work.