By Beth David, Editor
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments in the appeal of Michelle Carter on October 4, and the case is now under advisement. A decision should be reached in the next couple of months.
Ms. Carter was found guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter in the suicide death of Conrad Roy III, who was found in the Kmart parking lot in Fairhaven on July 13, 2014. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning. A spent gas-powered water pump was in the cab of the pickup truck with him. On August 3, 2017, Ms. Carter was sentenced to 2.5 years in the Bristol County House of Correction, with 15 months to be served and the balance suspended with probation for five years (ending 8/1/22). The sentence was stayed pending state appeals. If she loses this appeal and it is decided before 8/1/22, she will have to serve the 15 months in the House of Correction.
Ms. Carter’s series of text messages, emails and phone calls encouraging Mr. Roy to kill himself were cited as “wanton and reckless” conduct that led to Mr. Roy’s death.
At the original trial, Ms. Carter’s attorneys argued that her texts were protected speech under the First Amendment, and that by definition, Mr. Roy’s suicide was by his own hand. She was at home in Plainville, about 45 miles away when he died.
The state argued that Ms. Carter’s texts and other communications were the same as being with Mr. Roy in person and that her incessant texts and constant barrages of messages browbeat Mr. Roy into completing a task he would not have succeeded at otherwise.
In the end, Ms. Carter was on the phone with Mr. Roy for two long calls of more than 40 minutes each, one most likely at the exact time of his death, evidence at trial suggested.
In an email to friends two months after the suicide, Ms. Roy told a friend that Conrad got out of the truck because he was scared that it was working, and she told him get back in the truck.
Judge Lawrence Moniz cited that email in his explanation of his verdict, and the SJC also cited it when the case went to them a first time to see if it could proceed to trial.
Ms. Carter was also found guilty under the youthful offender statute, which also has specific guidelines. Under that statute the court must take into consideration a defendant’s age.
At the SJC hearing on 10/4, defense attorney Daniel N. Marx told the court that Ms. Carter was the first person in the state or anywhere to be convicted for verbally encouraging another person to commit suicide, even though she was not physically present. He said she did not provide the means and she was only 17.
Mr. Marx said that Ms. Carter did not have a duty to call 911 because there is no Good Samaritan law in Mass. and she was only 17, therefore it was not reasonable to expect that of her. And, even if she had called 911 there is no proof that it would have saved his life.
Mr. Marx also said that in the youthful offender statute, the word “inflict” has a specific meaning, to do bodily harm, which cannot be done from 50 miles away.
Mr. Marx and the justices also discussed the word “coercion” at length, noting it was not in Judge Moniz’s decision.
Mr. Marx also told the judges that it was not reasonable to suggest that Ms. Carter had any coercive control over Mr. Roy, that they were two troubled young people. It was clear, said Mr. Marx, that Ms Carter could not control Mr. Roy based on his “lengthy history” of rejecting numerous suggestions she made.
“This is not a woman who has control over a younger, more vulnerable victim,” he said, adding that there was no real evidence that he even could have gotten out of the truck. He said the texts show that their relationship was “complex.”
“And we can all see from the text messages Michelle Carter did not force Conrad Roy to kill himself,” said Mr. Marx. “That was a tragic decision that he made.”
Mr. Marx also argued that the texts were protected speech. He said there are a handful of clearly defined, narrow categories of speech that fall outside the First Amendment.
“This isn’t one of them,” he told the justices.
He said the “systematic coercion” that the court referred to in Carter 1 “never occurred.”
He also argued against “causation” saying that in the absence of proof that doing something would have saved him, there is no causation. If she had called 911, he may have died anyway.
The justices and Mr. Marx also engaged in a lengthy discussion about the word “inflict” and its definition under the youthful offender statute. The justices asked if she would be guilty if she hired someone to kill another person; and what about gang leaders who order subordinates to commit crimes.
“I don’t know where the line is,” said Mr. Marx. “But I know this: Infliction means something. It’s in a statute. This court is obliged to apply its ordinary definition and that ordinary definition is to physically apply force and cause bodily harm”
For the state, Assistant District Attorney Soshana Stern told the court that the relationship between Ms. Carter and Mr. Roy shifted “distinctly” in relation to the “balance of power” in the 12 days before his death.
Ms. Stern noted how “aggressive” Ms. Carter got as time went on and that she was “furious” with Mr. Roy one morning when she thought he had killed himself the night before. She told him she felt “played” and berated him for not killing himself.
She said Judge Moniz did not use the word “coercion” but he “implicity finds” that she is the “but for” cause of him being in the truck.”
“I think that certainly, I think there was coercion in this case,” said Ms. Stern.
Ms. Stern also addressed the defense’s argument that the Grand Jury indicted Ms. Carter on “wanton and reckless conduct,” and the judge found her guilt based on her “wanton and reckless failure to act.”
“I think he intended to find both,” said Ms. Stern.
The justices also voiced concern about how a decision would affect end of life discussions between a terminally ill person and a family member who may suggest a certain combination of drugs to end one’s life.
Ms. Stern noted that the court could make the decision a narrow one, but it would depend on who’s in the “driver’s seat,” a term the court used in Carter 1.
If you’re counseling a terribly ill patient, you’re in the driver’s seat, said one of the justices.
Then that “might be a problem,” said Ms. Stern, noting the law could be “troubled” by it.
A judge or jury might be sympathetic, she said, but it would still be a homicide.
The entire oral arguments are archived on the Suffolk University website. Visit https://www.suffolk.edu/sjc/archive.php and search for Docket # SJC-12502
Support local journalism, donate to the Neighb News at: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=Y6V5ARRYH689G
Click here to download the entire 12/6/18 issue: 12-06-18 BenoitSqLights