Teen texted boyfriend to kill himself. It worked. Will the law change to deal with digital reality?
Situation does not look good for Michelle Carter
Prosecutors in the US who want to send 18-year-old Michelle Carter to jail for her boyfriend's suicide have rested their case after three days in court.
The Massachusetts teenager is charged with involuntary manslaughter after she sent hundreds of texts to her then-lover Conrad Roy III back in 2014 urging him to follow through on a threat to kill himself.
As the details and timeline of his suicide – caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in his truck – have come out, public opinion has turned against Carter, with many aghast at her repeated egging on of Roy, even after he expressed doubts multiple times.
Carter's lawyers tried to prevent the texts from being introduced as evidence, claiming First Amendment rights, but the request was refused by the judge. As a result, we now know not only that she encouraged Roy to kill himself, but that she repeatedly lambasted him when he didn't go through with it.
"When are you going to do it? Stop ignoring the question???? You can't keep push [sic] it off," read one of many messages sent from Carter to Roy in the days leading up to his death.
She asked him repeatedly if he was going to "do it today." When he responded that he would, she replied: "You promise?" Another time, when he did not kill himself, she texted: "You lied about this whole thing! I thought you really wanted to die."
She encouraged him to Google ways of generating carbon monoxide and he came up with the idea of using a portable generator. A few days later she texted: "Do you have the generator?" He replied: "Not yet lol." She responded: "WELL WHEN ARE YOU GETTING IT."
And in a critical exchange on the night of his death in which he argued it was too late for him to go out, Carter told him: "Tonight is the night. It's now or never."
When Roy said he was worried about the impact of his death on his family, Carter replied that they would "get over it," adding:
Everyone will be sad for a while but they will get over it and move on. They won't be in depression. I won't let that happen. They know how sad you are, and they know that you are doing this to be happy and I think they will understand and accept it. They will always carry you in their hearts.
But just as appalling and revealing as the texts directly from Carter to Roy were, her texts to her friends have also put her in a very unflattering light. "It's my fault," she texted to school friend Samantha Boardman, "I could have stopped him but I told him to get back in the car."
To another friend, she claimed she was "talking on the phone with him when he killed himself ... I heard him die." That could well be true as investigators discovered two long phone calls between the two of them on the night of his death, one right around when they believed he died.
When Carter found out investigators were going through her cellphone records, she texted Boardman again saying: "If they read my messages with him, I'm done."
As to why anyone would do such a thing, the prosecution argued that Carter reveled in the attention. "She used Conrad as a pawn in her sick game of life and death," said prosecutor Maryclare Flynn, even going so far as to carry out a "dry run" two days before he finally killed himself. "She knew her plan to get attention would work because she pre-tested it," Flynn argued.
Carter had texted several friends that Roy had gone missing – receiving concerned messages of support in return – while simultaneously telling him to go buy the generator. After he died, Carter posted grieving notices on social media and even organized a basketball tournament in his memory. But the truth, the prosecution argued, is that "she put him in the car that night."
The hundreds of texts have proven to be the key evidence in the case. The question is whether they represent a sufficient level of coercion that she should be held responsible for his death, or whether they were callous and irresponsible but that he was ultimately responsible for taking his own life. It will be a judge making that decision after Carter waived her right to a jury trial.
Typically, the law has decided that someone has to be physically present for there to be a degree of responsibility for death. But in the modern digital era, where text messages are often the main form of communication – especially between teenagers – that situation might change as a result of this case.
As for her defense, Carter's attorney, Joseph Cataldo, has argued that Roy was clearly suicidal and that Carter had previously talked him out of it. He highlighted older text messages in 2012 and 2013 that show Carter trying to stop Roy from attempting suicide, and urging him to seek treatment.
Roy was depressed over the divorce of his parents and having been a victim of physical abuse by a relative, he argued. "This case is a suicide case. It is a suicide. It is not a homicide," Cataldo told the court.
On Friday morning, Judge Lawrence Moniz will hear the defense's motion for a judgment of not guilty. If denied, the defense will begin calling witnesses. ®