Michelle Carter faces 20 years in prison for telling her boyfriend to commit suicide.
(Glenn C.Silva/Fairhaven Neighborhood News, Pool)
Over an eerie hush in a packed Massachusetts courtroom, Judge Lawrence Moniz on Friday found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the calls and texts she sent when she was 17 telling her boyfriend, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III, to take his own life.
"The Commonwealth has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions taken by Ms. Carter in the period between June 30 and July 12 constituted wanton and reckless conduct by her and serious disregard of the wellbeing of Mr. Roy," Moniz said.
Carter, wearing a beige and blue floral top, looked at her attorney Joseph Cataldo—he whispered in her ear—before breaking down in tears.
Moniz took 15 minutes to explain his ruling on the controversial case surrounding two troubled teenagers. The court was filled with the families of Roy and Carter on either side, and journalists and spectators filled every seat as seven court officers stood guard.
That Roy—who suffered from anxiety and depression and had previously attempted to take his own life—might have killed himself in the future without Carter's influence "does not control or even inform the court," Moniz said.
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The judge ruled that though Roy took "significant actions" to his own end, extensively researched how to kill himself, "spoke of it continually," obtained a generator and water pump himself, researched how to fix it, parked his car in an "unnoticeable area" and started the pump himself, Carter had a duty to call for help when she knew Roy was inside his truck, at a Kmart parking lot, as it filled with toxic fumes.
Moniz pointed out that at the time, Carter had Roy's mother's and sister's phone numbers, but did not call them that night. Nor did she alert the emergency service less than half a mile away from the parking lot in which he died, Moniz said.
Carter's later claim to friends via text that she had heard the loud roar of the generator while on the phone with Roy as he took his last gasps of air are consistent with where the generator was placed beside him in the truck, Moniz added.
Those text messages were critical to the judge's decision. Carter told one friend she instructed Roy to "get back in" when he had second thoughts after his car began to fill with fumes. In his previous suicide attempts, Roy had called friends and family for help, Moniz noted, and they did in fact assist him.
At this point, ruled Moniz, "Ms. Carter knows that Mr. Roy has followed her instructions."
"She has instructed Mr. Roy to get back in the truck, well knowing all of the feelings he exchanged with her, his ambiguities, his fears, his concerns," the judge said. "This court finds that instructing Mr. Roy to get back in the truck constituted wanton and reckless conduct."
The case raised concerns on part of free speech advocates, including the ACLU, which joined Carter's attorney in an unsuccessful attempt to throw out the grand jury's ruling to indict the woman in the first place.
"The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy's death," Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, said in a statement. "If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter's conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved across the Commonwealth." Segal argues that this case stretches the boundaries of criminal law, since Massachusetts does not have a law against assisted suicide on the books.
In his ruling, Moniz tried to address that line of criticism, and the general consternation on the part of some observers at the "novel" legal principles in play.
In one instance about 200 years ago, Moniz pointed out, an inmate was charged with causing the murder of a man in the next cell. "The law was different in those days, but some of the similarities existed," he said.
He also cited a more recent case in Massachusetts, Commonwealth v. Levesque, in which a homeless couple was charged with manslaughter after they accidentally started a fire, in 1999, in a Worcester warehouse. They did not call authorities to say they had escaped, and six firemen who had rushed into the building to save them died.
That case proved that "when one's actions create life-threatening risk, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk. The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter," according to Moniz.
What the judge did not note is that although attorneys failed to throw out the indictment, Thomas Levesque was not found guilty. His attorney, Ed Ryan, secured him a continuance without finding. "They never could have gotten a conviction in Levesque," Ryan told me.
But Ryan believes that the Carter case is different in that his client was present at the scene of the crime, and started the fire, while Carter was miles away, talking to Roy on the phone.
After the ruling, Carter sat frozen at the defense table as Roy's family filed out of the courtroom, some with smiles, some in tears. The woman's family sat unmoving in the courtroom, though some could later be seen in tears as well.
Almost miraculously, Carter managed to escape the hordes of reporters waiting for her by the door when leaving the courthouse. She will remain out on bail for now and is set to return to court on August 3 for sentencing. She faces up to 20 years in prison, though she is expected to appeal.
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