Written by: Sarah Meigs
Member, American Journal of Trial Advocacy
Michelle Carter, a twenty-year-old young woman from Massachusetts, found herself at the center of an involuntary manslaughter case that has made national headlines.1 The actions she took to get there were not done face to face, but, rather, over the phone via text message, making the facts of this case novel, but increasingly more believable in this digital age. Carter was indicted and tried as a juvenile for allegedly acting wantonly and recklessly when she sent a string of text messages to her then boyfriend, Conrad Roy, in the days leading up to his ultimate suicide.2 Roy killed himself in a Kmart parking lot three years ago, using a generator turned on inside his truck.3 He tragically died of asphyxiation caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.4 On June 16, 2017, Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and will face up to 20 years in prison when she is sentenced on August 3, 2017. 5
After Carter was successfully indicted, the prosecution only needed to prove three things in order to prove their case and convince the judge6 to hand down a conviction. Namely, the prosecution had to prove that her actions were intentional, wanton or reckless, and that her actions caused the victim’s death.7 According to Judge Moniz, the fact that Carter herself sent the text messages satisfied the intent requirement. A quick read of the text message transcript leaves little question that her actions were wanton and reckless.8 Finally, some may not hesitate to say there is little question left that her actions caused Roy’s death. When reading the messages, it is clear that he was second guessing his decision to commit suicide; however, she continued to encourage him and she urged him to go through with it, even going so far as to make him promise that he was actually going to do it “this time.”9 At one point, Roy got out of the truck, unable to go through with the suicide, but Carter pressed on, ignoring his obvious reservations, and urged him to get back into the truck.10
The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of Massachusetts has already released a statement regarding the conviction.11 Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, is quoted as saying “[t]his conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.”12 However, this is not the first time someone has been held criminally liable for another’s suicide.13 Like most of these cases, the tragic story of Roy and Carter stems from bullying and cyber bullying issues. They may have been dating, but one can interpret that her text messages bullied him into taking his final action. She goaded him, and encouraged him to take his own life.1
4Although it seems like this situation is black and white and that Michelle Carter’s actions were certainly criminal, the Constitutional law principles on the matter are murky. For that reason, there have been many who have spoken out against this ruling. Some detractors claim this is a violation of Carter’s First Amendment right to free speech and expression. Additionally, one notable legal blog has published an article against the ruling in this case.15 The title of the blog posting indicates that the article’s author believes that Carter is being punished for something that is not a crime.16 Particularly, as the title suggests, the author believes that Carter is being criminalized for “being a bitch.”17 The author blames anyone and everyone but Michelle Carter for not saving Roy’s life.18 She even implies that a random, hypothetical Kmart employee should be punished for not finding Roy and calling for help.19 The author goes on to exclaim “[t]he law is designed to prosecute people who do awful things, not people who say awful things.”20 However, when faced with the proposition that words could not overcome someone’s will to live, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts said it best, “we disagree.”21
The sufficiency of the indictment itself has already been challenged on the same grounds that any appeal will likely come on.22 This challenge was also on the same grounds upon which the aforementioned blog author and ACLU representative complain.23 After the grand jury returned the indictment, the defense moved to dismiss on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to convict Carter and that her words did not involve the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm.24 Once that motion was denied, the defense then sought relief from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. 25 The defense argued that words were insufficient to overcome a person’s will to live and that mere words could not constitute wanton or reckless conduct.26 However, the Supreme Judicial Court disagreed and upheld the indictment.27 The court found that commission of a physical act in perpetrating a victim’s death has never been a requirement to be indicted, or found guilty, of involuntary manslaughter.28 The court continued to point out that this is not the first case in Massachusetts where a defendant has been charged with involuntary manslaughter for a death that was self inflicted. 29 In fact, there has already been a similar case in the state. In Persampieri v. Com,30 a husband informed his wife that he wanted a divorce, her response was to threaten suicide. The husband, instead of disarming his then wife, loaded the gun and taunted her, telling her she was “chicken and wouldn’t do it.”31 Subsequently, the wife successfully killed herself in the family home.32 The husband was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter on the theory of reckless and wanton conduct, similar to Michelle Carter.33 On appeal the court found that:
[I]nstead of trying to bring [the victim] to her senses, [the defendant] taunted her, told her where the gun was, loaded it for her, saw that the safety was off, and told her the means by which she could pull the trigger. He thus showed a reckless disregard of his wife’s safety and the possible consequences of his conduct.”34
Michelle Carter may not have loaded the gun as Mr. Persampieri did, but, the Judge in her case found that her actions were analogous. She goaded Roy, she told him what to do and how to do it, and she even insisted he get back into his truck after he had confided in her that he was scared. It is doubtful, on account of Massachusetts’s precedent case law, that any court in the state would find such actions anything short of wanton and reckless behavior.
The aforementioned legal blog authors and the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts fail to see that this case and the cases of those held responsible for Conrad Roy, Mrs. Persampieri, and many other suicides often are one in the same. Targeted words were the weapon of choice in all the aforementioned cases. The relationships between the accused and the victims may have been different, but the weapon remained the same. Every crime has technical elements that, if met by the prosecution, the accused must be found guilty. In the case of Michelle Carter, the prosecution did just that, they met their burden. The First Amendment does not guarantee a person will be free from any and all consequences of the words that they speak. This speech is a far cry from political argument, discussion of various important topics, or discourse that the First Amendment is in place to protect. Michelle Carter’s words had deadly consequences and now she is being held to answer for them. This case, with the immense amount of press-coverage, certainly establishes precedent in Massachusetts, and is likely to be used as persuasive precedent in other states. Cyber bullies all over the country should consider themselves on notice.
1 Katharine Q. Seelye & Jess Bidgood, Guilty Verdict for Woman who Urged Friend to Kill Himself, New York Times (June 16, 2017),
7 Com. v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624 (Mass. 2016) (citing Com. v. Life Care Ctrs. Of Am., Inc., 456 Mass. 826 (Mass. 2010).
8 Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Read The Messages At The Heart Of The Michelle Carter Suicide-By-Text Manslaughter Trial, Boston.com (June 16, 2017), https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2017/06/05/read-the-messages-at-the-heart-of-the-michelle-carter-suicide-by-text-manslaughter-trial.
11 Matthew Segal, ACLU of Massachusetts statement on Michelle Carter guilty verdict, ACLU of Massachusetts (June 16, 2017), https://aclum.org/uncategorized/aclu-massachusetts-statement-michelle-carter-guilty-verdict/.
13 See genrally, Erik Eckholm and Katie Zezima, 6 Teenagers Are Charged After Classmate’s Suicide, The New York Times (March 29, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/us/30bully.html?pagewanted=all; Doug Stanglin and William M. Welch, Two girls arrested on bullying charges after suicide, USA Today (Updated 8:11 a.m. ET Oct. 16, 2013), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/15/florida-bullying-arrest-lakeland-suicide/2986079/; Alex Tresniowski, A Cyberbully Convicted, People (December 15, 2008, 12:00pm), http://people.com/archive/a-cyberbully-convicted-vol-70-no-24/.
14 Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Read The Messages At The Heart Of The Michelle Carter Suicide-By-Text Manslaughter Trial, Boston.com (June 16, 2017), https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2017/06/05/read-the-messages-at-the-heart-of-the-michelle-carter-suicide-by-text-manslaughter-trial.
15 Elie Mystal, Being A Bitch Is Now A Criminal Offense, Apparently, Above The Law (June 16, 2017, 4:414 PM), http://abovethelaw.com/2017/06/being-a-bitch-is-now-a-criminal-offense-apparently/.
21 Com. v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624 (Mass. 2016).
23See Segal, supra note 11 (“If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth.”)
24 Id., at 625.
25 Id., at 630.
26 Id., at 632.
30 343 Mass. 19 (1961).
31 Id., at 22.
34 Id., at 23.