The Suicide-by-Text Trial Comes Down to a Judge's Ruling
Twenty-year-old Michelle Carter faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly goading her boyfriend into killing himself.
Michelle Carter in court last Tuesday. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via AP, Pool)/Art by Lia Kantrowitz
Friends and family struggling to make sense of a tragic teenage romance walked through the scorching heat and into the cool of a Massachusetts courthouse Tuesday for closing arguments in a dark and deeply unusual trial about why an 18-year-old boy is dead.
On one side, packed together, and spilling over into the aisle, sat the family of Conrad Roy III, the kid from a small sailing town who killed himself while sitting in the front seat of his truck in a Kmart parking lot.
On the other, spread out across the first two benches, sat the family and others in support of Michelle Carter, Roy's 20-year-old former girlfriend. She's being tried for allegedly coaxing Roy to his death with text messages and phone calls when she was 17, an involuntary manslaughter charge that carries up to 20 years in prison.
Carter, wearing her usual pumps and a pastel floral print, sat almost motionless throughout both arguments as her family looked on. She has grown increasingly fragile-looking over the course of the trial.
"He dragged Michelle Carter into this your honor," said Joseph Cataldo, one of the young woman's defense attorneys, arguing that Roy wore her down with his constant talk of suicide.
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Carter was "overwhelmed," by Roy, Cataldo said, insisting she only succumbed to his requests to help come up with a plan to kill himself—and go with him "on this sad journey to take his own life"—because she was in a manic state induced by antidepression pills.
Roy had previously attempted to take his own life on multiple occasions, and had searched extensively online for ways to kill himself. When Cataldo began to list the specifics of those searches, Roy's mother stormed out of the room, and other family members welled with emotion.
Assistant District Attorney Katherine Rayburn got the last word.
"She knew at that moment that he didn't want to die, and she knew just as importantly exactly what would happen when he got back in that truck," she said, describing the key juncture when Carter allegedly ordered Roy back into his truck as it filled with fumes, after he called her to say he was scared.
"She wasn't going to let him live," Rayburn told the court.
The case is unusual in a state that does not have a law for assisted suicide on the books—and because Carter is being tried for crime based on the weight of her words, written and spoken, alone. The vast majority of evidence in this case is made up of text messages, conversations Carter had with Roy, and messages she sent to others, including one in which she claimed she told Roy to "get back in," before listening to his final gasps for air.
Now that the case has made it to trial—after overcoming free speech claims made by the defense and bolstered by the ACLU—the verdict pivots on causation. Judge Lawrence Moniz, who is weighing the evidence himself after Carter waived her right to a trial by jury, has to decide if the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Roy would not have taken his own life were it not for Carter's texts and calls. Just as crucial, he must rule on whether Carter had a duty to send for help when she knew of Carter's plans—especially if she knew he was dying on the other end of the phone, as alleged by prosecutors.
In Carter's defense, Cataldo insisted the lonely 17-year-old wasn't even able to convince Roy to go on a date with her to get ice cream, much less take his own life.
While they lived less than an hour away from each other in Massachusetts, the two met while visiting their respective grandparents in Naples, Florida. Over the course of three years, they met in person only three or four times, but texted and messaged via Facebook constantly—right up until Roy's death on July 12, 2014.
"It's sad, it's tragic, but it's just not a homicide," Cataldo said. He ended his argument by citing one of Roy's texts in which he said he didn't want anyone to feel culpable if and when he took his own life. "I don't want anyone to feel guilty about it, it's nothing they can do," Cataldo read to the court.
Rayburn made the case that Carter convinced Roy to die so that she could gain the attention of her classmates, who had grown distant after she was institutionalized for an eating disorder. While she asked Roy to call her his girlfriend, and insisted he write her a suicide note, hours after Roy's death she was texting with another boy, Rayburn said. "I think my friend just died," Carter wrote, neglecting to mention that Roy had been, at least by her own previous account, her boyfriend.
Roy was dead in his truck, and Carter was clear-headed enough to make sure this new guy "knows she's available" Rayburn argued.
The prosecution's greatest hurdle is to prove that Carter's calls and texts alone constitute a crime. "It's a new day and age your honor, and the phones that we have now allow you to be virtually present with somebody," she said. "People fall in love on the internet and via text. People bully, and you can encourage someone to die via text, and you can commit a crime via text."
When arguments wrapped, Moniz thanked the clerks and attorneys, and nodded to the fact that "the lives of two families have been immutably changed by the events that we have heard testified to in this courtroom over the last week or so," before calling the court into recess.
Carter sat by the defense bench, her back turned, as her family and attorneys left the room. With only a few straggling journalists left behind, a court officer told her it was time to go. Finally, the 20-year-old stood up and walked to the defense chambers, tears streaming down her face.
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