While they didn’t call it bullying, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of 22-year-old Michelle Carter, who repeatedly encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide in 2014. She has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. 18-year-old Conrad Roy III was found dead in his car in a K-Mart parking lot after pumping his car with Carbon Monoxide. Official text message transcripts detail Roy’s doubt and fear about the decision. Carter consistently encouraged him to purchase the pump, prompting him to commit suicide. She even proclaimed that “people who commit suicide don’t think this much”. After the car filled with Carbon Monoxide, Roy exited in fear. Carter commanded him to return inside. Roy died later that night. The next day, Carter sent a text to a friend saying she was at fault for Roy’s death because she had instructed him to go back inside his vehicle. Carter was 17 at the time of the incident, and was originally tried in the Bristol Juvenile Court of Taunton, Massachusetts. The lower court found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a bench trial.
Carter’s actions are obviously extreme, but her behavior is not the first time bullying has lead to the victim’s suicide.
Upon appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Carter’s legal team raised a variety of issues. In Justice Scott L. Kafker’s opinion, the Court rejected the notion that her physical absence absolve her of responsibility, finding that her verbal comments were a direct link to Roy’s death. The opinion noted that the accused was aware of her influence on the victim, and understood fully that Roy suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies. Carter’s attorneys based her defense on these key issues: insufficient evidence, lack of due process, free speech infringement, no infliction of bodily harm, not being a reasonable juvenile, and not being able to bring forward an expert witness. The defense claimed that the only evidence of her admitting responsibility was the text message to her friend. Carter’s team argued that an extrajudicial message is not valid evidence. The Court found that the evidence was valid if corroborated, which it was by her various messages encouraging him to commit suicide. Her claim that she lacked due process due to the involuntary manslaughter charge being constitutionally vague was not upheld. The Court explained that any statute previously expanded upon by judicial explanation cannot be considered vague. Her free speech was also not infringed upon, according to the opinion, as involuntary manslaughter requires “wanton or reckless conduct”. If this conduct happens to be speech, it is implied that the speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Kafker also denies that Carter had to physically cause or inflict the bodily harm, as the law only states the incident must involve the infliction of harm, not that the defendant must physically cause it. Carter’s team also argued that she should not be considered under the reasonable person standard, but under the reasonable juvenile standard. The Court found that Carter was a reasonable juvenile, as her statements to the victim showed she fully understood the gravity of her actions. Lastly, Carter’s team was denied bringing forth an expert psychology witness in the original trial. The defense argued against this, stating that similar witnesses had appeared in similar cases. Kafker stated that one judge’s discretion over a different witness in a different case does not hold weight for this case.
The upholding of the case was the cause for some controversy. Matt Segal, the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union director, condemned the decision for its broad implications. His concern is that the decision has allowed prosecutors to place charges over subjective interpretations of speech that has been deemed “criminal”. Carter’s attorneys will explore appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There is a line between free speech and bullying. Our society is still struggling to define that line, but the Massachusetts Court made the right call in this case where bullying directly lead to suicide.
If you ever experience or have experienced suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you or a family member has experienced bullying, know that you have rights in the criminal AND civil justice system. Contact Koller Trial Law for a free consultation.