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Suicide-by-Text Trial's Latest Twist: It Was the Drugs

Michelle Carter, accused of goading her boyfriend into suicide via text when she was 17, wants a judge to believe she was sent over the rails by antidepressants.

Susan Zalkind

Susan Zalkind

Michelle Carter is escorted out of Taunton Juvenile Court at the end of the day by a court officer in Taunton, Mass., Monday, June 12, 2017. (Faith Ninivaggi/The Boston Herald via AP)

Michelle Carter, who at 17 encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself, later claiming* she told him to "get back in" as his truck filled with deadly fumes and he had second thoughts, is actually a "helper," according to an expert witness who testified in court Monday.

"She lives to help people," psychiatrist Peter Breggin told a packed Massachusetts gallery, speaking with the tone of doting grandfather bragging at the golf course.

For the last week, a frail Carter, now 20, sat quiet and still on the defense bench as prosecutors called old high school classmates and teammates to the stand—and tried to use her own text messages against her.

She listened as the girls she once tried so desperately to befriend told the court in essence that they didn't know her—not really, anyway, when, in July 2014, she told them her boyfriend Conrad Roy III had taken his own life. Carter claimed to have heard his last gasping breaths over the phone from his truck outside a Kmart.

Now the defense hopes Breggin can help save the 20-year-old from spending as much time in prison as she's already spent on Earth.


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The Carter trial has garnered national attention in part because the case, which is based almost entirely on interactions between teenagers on smartphones, is an awkward fit for a 200-year-old involuntary manslaughter statute. Prosecutors had to jump through a hurdle at the Massachusetts's highest court, where defense attorneys unsuccessfully argued that indicting Carter based solely on what she wrote and said over the phone violated her First Amendment Rights. (The ACLU actually joined that attempt to get the case thrown out.)

Of course, it's also sparked national interest because of the sheer depravity of Carter's many, many texts to Roy, first released to the public when she was indicted in 2015. "So are you sure you don't wanna [kill yourself] tonight?" asked Carter in one of many similar messages she and Roy sent back and forth. "SEE THAT'S WHAT I MEAN. YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF!" she replied when he told her he wanted to wait one more night.

"Like anybody who is in a hypomanic state, she gets very angry when she is disrupted," Breggin said in court, explaining why Carter was so irritated when Roy tried to brush her off.

Breggin claimed that at the time Carter was encouraging Roy to kill himself, she was involuntarily intoxicated by SSRI antidepressants, which she was prescribed for an eating disorder. (Breggin said the intoxication was involuntary because she was not aware of the effects the medicine was having on her.)

Breggin cited a black box warning on the drug Celexa that the medication can cause an increased risk of suicide in those age 24 and younger—and can also cause insomnia, irritability, hostility, and other harmful effects.

According to Breggin, Carter suffered from those side effects, and got it in her head that helping Roy—who had struggled for years with anxiety and depression and unsuccessfully tried to take his own life before—kill himself would be helpful. Breggin added that Carter hoped to be able to successfully comfort her boyfriend's grieving family when he was gone.

"She was unable to form intent because she was grandiose," Breggin said, noting that Carter at first seemed to try to get Roy help—and texted his number two months after his death about raising money in his name.

After reviewing several years worth of Facebook messages and texts between the two, Breggin concluded that they had both had visions of the devil—Carter in her dreams, Roy during an inpatient stay. Roy drew her into the idea "that they are meant to be together from the devil," the doctor told the court.

Basically, Breggin argued, Carter was young, in love, and on drugs. "She's following his lead into a very dark place," he said.

Because Carter has elected to leave her fate to the hands of a judge rather than a jury, much of the testimony and arguments in this trial have been (relatively) subdued. Judge Lawrence Moniz has, on multiple occasions, told prosecutors that he does not need witnesses to read messages to the court, explaining that since they have been entered into evidence, he can read them himself.

This leaves journalists, and other inquiring minds, to sift through Carter's texts and Facebook messages at Taunton District Court.

The messages tell a story of a young woman who had no idea how to go about making friends, even as she was desperate to do so. When attempts to invite her classmates over to kayak failed, she proceeded to send constant—and seemingly urgent—messages about an eating disorder, and began describing a cutting problem. She confided to the girls she was attempting to grow close to that she struggling with questions about her own sexuality, and that a romantic relationship with a member of the softball team led her to be cut off completely from her former best friend. Once she dropped out of the team, Carter wrote, she found herself isolated and depressed.

Despite alienating prospective friends with the constant flood of dark messages, Carter was able to draw some of them back in after Roy's death. For the first time in a year's worth of exchanges, people began asking her to hang out again.

Energetic prosecutors argue that Carter's claims of cutting were a fiction, a ploy to get attention from her peers. The state's attorneys' otherworldly disdain for the accused at times made it seem like they might prefer throwing Carter into a pond—just to see if she would sink or float—to convicting her.

And Breggin could actually get Carter off. His testimony that the young defendant was involuntarily intoxicated by antidepressants has gotten alleged killers off before.

But it would be a mistake to count on him to make any sense of this trial—or Carter.

Breggin is a man who once claimed "craziness" was the result of "cowardice" and "failure of nerve." Though he has vehemently denied his ties to Scientology, and claimed his wife is no longer a member, he also went to bat for Tom Cruise after the actor infamously told Matt Lauer, "There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance."

Which is to say Breggin has opened himself up to the "extremist" label, to put it mildly.

He's also just not very thorough.

On cross examination, which will continue into Tuesday, Breggin admitted that he was not aware of another medication Carter might have been taking at the time she was texting Roy. He also admitted that he had not interviewed Carter, nor had he spoken to her doctors, or her psychologists, nor had he tried to get in contact with them.

As Peter D. Kramer, a prominent critic of over-prescribing drugs and author of Listening to Prozac, told me, "It's always important to ask if the expert testimony is proportional [to current scientific findings.]"

While some who suffer from bipolar disorder might be thrown into a manic state when taking anti-depressants, dangerous adverse effects like violent behavior or self-harm are rare, even if there are elevated risks for young people.

"These medicines prevent many many more suicides than they cause," he said.

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If you are feeling suicidal, visit the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call toll free 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time. A listing of similar helplines in other countries can be found here.

UPDATE 6/13/17: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story described this conversation as having taken place via text messages in the court record, when in fact prosecutors say Carter later recounted it in a subsequent text message conversation with a friend.