A Massachusetts judge recently found 20-year old defendant Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her “boyfriend” Conrad Roy III. The case had attracted national attention due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Roy’s death. Media commentary focused on the fact that Carter’s role in Roy’s death revolved around the huge volume of text messages she sent him before and during his suicide. Many voices wrongly saw this case as some sort of “free speech” issue; but closer examination of the facts paints the case in a very different light. This was the act of a malevolent puppetmaster who manipulated a sick man right into his own grave.
Although Carter had used electronic communications to push Roy into suicide, the fact remains that the communications still constituted an egregious and utterly callous disregard for the safety of a man with significant mental health issues. In the opinion of this writer, Carter’s behavior displayed a level of malice conscious premeditation that would have–and perhaps should have–justified a murder charge.
On July 13 of 2014, Roy was found dead in the parking lot of a K-Mart store. He was 20 years old at the time; Carter was 17. Investigators quickly focused their attention to large volume of text messages that had been exchanged between the two. According to the prosecutors, between July 6 and July 12, Carter pestered Roy more than 40 times with text messages, asking when he planned to kill himself. She knew that Roy had a history of depression and illness (he had made a previous suicide attempt in 2012). It is important to note that these messages were not just questions: they were insistent, strident calls for him to end his life. She directed him to carbon monoxide poisoning as the most efficient way to end his life. “It’s no big deal,” she told him.
Roy made his last phone call to Carter as he was carrying out his suicide plans; this call lasted about 43 minutes. Carter than called Roy back; this call lasted 47 minutes. At one point, Roy broke off his plan; he exited the car and told her that he could not go through with it. “Get back in the fucking car,” was her response. Roy did, and he died soon after. In a text to a friend after Roy’s death, Carter bluntly stated,
His death is my fault…Like, honestly I could have stopped it. I was the one on the phone with him and he got out of the car because [it] was working and he got scared and I fucken told him to get back in … because I knew that he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live the way he was living anymore.
“She used Conrad as a pawn in her sick game of death,” said the prosecutor to the court. Carter’s defense attorney, Joseph Cataldo, tried to paint a different picture of what happened. Introducing the victim’s psychiatric records, he argued that Roy was already prepared to commit suicide, with or without any outside help.
The defense further argued that Carter’s own emotional problems were a mitigating factor in the case. Her use of antidepressant medications, according to her attorney, may have impaired her judgment. Cataldo also tried to cast his client as a passive bystander, claiming that “There’s no action. He took his own life. He took all the actions necessary to cause his own death.” The court, however, was not persuaded by these arguments. Carter was judged guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Legal and social pundits immediately honed in on the text-messaging nature of the case. With its usual talent for missing the point, the American Civil Liberties Union thundered that the case “imperils free speech,” as if this case were anything about protected speech. It is not.
Any criminal attorney can confirm the fact that many crimes can be committed with words alone: felony criminal threat, solicitation, extortion, and even conspiracy. Under the right circumstances, all of these crimes can be consummated by the emission of words alone. It is irrelevant whether the words take place orally, in a text message, through a written letter, or through carrier pigeon.
Attempts to cast this case as some sort of “free speech” issue thus are completely misplaced. Furthermore, it cannot be said that Carter’s role was one of a passive bystander. Quite the contrary is true. The evidence shows that Carter took an active and commanding role in the Roy’s death. She helped him plan it, she hounded him to carry it out, and–most shockingly–she ordered him back into the carbon monoxide filled car when he had withdrawn from his plan. Her role in Roy’s death was one of proximate causation; that is, “but for” her actions, the suicide as it happened would not have taken place.
Under the legal doctrine of proximate cause, something can be said to “cause” something else when it is sufficiently close in time and space to make a certain outcome “foreseeable” from a certain action. Even if Carter had not ordered Roy back into the jaws of death (the poisoned car), there was probably sufficient evidence from all her other text messages to sustain a conviction for manslaughter.
It must be said that, as far as the defendant’s conduct is concerned, there are no mitigating factors in this case. In essentially orchestrating Roy’s death, Carter displayed a level of malice and cruelty that is nothing less than shocking. This is someone with no moral compass, a person for whom the normal feelings of compassion and kindness are utterly alien. It no doubt weighed heavily on the court’s ruling.
She clearly derived some sort of sick satisfaction from acting as Roy’s angel of death. Hovering around him constantly, she exploited a confused, vulnerable, and impaired man to make herself feel a sense of power. Some people are warped enough to find pleasure in playing God with other people’s lives, and this case was a perfect illustration of that.
Her conduct after his death make it clear that she planned to exploit the tragedy (that she herself had engineered) for her own attention-seeking purposes. This was behavior that was pure evil, involving a level of planning and wickedness that go beyond an accidental manslaughter scenario.
The case was properly decided. At sentencing, the court must take note of the unmitigated nature of the defendant’s conduct, and hand down an appropriate sentence. Probation is not appropriate in this case.