The long and painful saga of the trial of Michelle Carter, charged with Involuntary Manslaughter in the 2014 suicide death of her 18 year-old “boyfriend” Carter Roy III, is not completely finished. Not on a legal level, because Carter has yet to be sentenced – that will come later. And on a personal level, the case will in reality never be “finished” – not for the two families involved in this story of pathos and “progress” (i.e., technological.) Certainly not for several others affected by it, either.
For it is a fact that a collision of forces took place in this young man’s death: A combination of mental illness in the form of depression, of homicidal animus, and, yes, of moral decay within a society where the most intimate of relationships – including marriage – and now, yes, life itself- are ended by something called a smartphone. Yes, this case is an indictment and a conviction of one person – Michelle Carter – for the suicidal death of Conrad Roy III. But our society as a whole can be indicted here, as well: For reducing the value of human life and human interaction to something so shallow and cowardly as an electronic text.
My legal analysis of this verdict is that it is not surprising. There is legal precedent in Massachusetts for indicting and charging a person with involuntary manslaughter in factual circumstances where such a charge might otherwise appear to be a legal stretch: Over 200 years ago, in 1816, a prison inmate was prosecuted – though ultimately not convicted – for allegedly convincing another inmate who was facing a death sentence by hanging – to commit suicide before his execution. Much more recently, a group of homeless “squatters” who had unintentionally started a fire inside a Worcester Massachusetts warehouse where six firefighters died battling the blaze, were charged for not calling firefighters to the scene earlier.
Let’s first understand the legal charge in this case, which wasn’t Murder One or Murder Two, or even Voluntary Manslaughter. It was Involuntary Manslaughter, and as such a conviction hinges on the prosecution proving two legal elements, beyond a reasonable doubt: 1) That the defendant intended that the death result from his or her actions, and 2) That the defendant’s conduct rose (or sank, if you will) to the level of “reckless disregard” for the defendant’s life. As a Westwood and Boston Massachusetts homicide defense attorney, I’m not at all surprised that both of these elements were met in this case. It’s important to note here that Carter and her attorneys chose to waive her constitutional right to a jury trial here, and instead have a judge hear the case (this is called a “bench trial.”) As a matter of trial strategy, that was smart, as any jury hearing the facts in this trial, was not going to be favorably inclined toward this defendant. A judge would hear the case far more dispassionately – but as you can see that’s no guarantee of a not guilty verdict
Some Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys have voiced disagreement about the judge’s verdict, opining that this case didn’t fit in the classic pattern involving manslaughter. Such observers have claimed that manslaughter requires direct action; a classic example is of a person who shoots a gun into a crowd. Even though I come from a defense perspective, as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I disagree. Through hundreds of text messages sent between Cart and Roy, the evidence unquestionably proved that Carter repeatedly encouraged young Roy to commit suicide – at one point even texting him to get back in his truck that he had specially rigged to feed carbon monoxide into the cab.
Prosecutors successfully proved that Carter had texted Roy numerous times encouraging him to commit suicide – even listening to Roy suffocating over the phone – and she intentionally failed to summon 911 help or even call his family to tell then that Roy had died.
Quoting from the judge’s decision: “She (Carter) admits in … texts that she did nothing: She did not call the police or Mr. Roy’s family” after hearing his last breaths during a phone call, “Moniz wrote. “And, finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”
“This court has found that Carter’s actions and failure to act, where it was her self-created duty to Roy since she put him in that toxic environment constituted reckless conduct,” ruled the judge. “The court finds that the conduct caused the death of Mr. Roy.”
Here is just one example of a text Carter sent Roy in July 2012 – which is very typical of the hundreds exchanged with Roy, who was clearly reconsidering this decision to commit suicide:
Roy: “I’m overthinking” (the idea of committing suicide.)
Carter: “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe. You can’t keep doing this every day.”
While Carter could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison, given her age and her own mental health issues, I doubt she will receive anywhere near that maximum.
We live in an increasingly callow, desensitized world – accelerated by the alienation and degradation of human feelings and human values by a faceless internet that is everywhere, yet nowhere. It has been claimed that Albert Einstein once said “It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”
That thought may well be true. I think it is something we should all ponder.