What We Know About the Michelle Carter Suicide Texting Case
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The details of the case were grim and unusual, a miserable glimpse at lives playing out via technology: A young woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for her role in encouraging a friend — in texts and phone calls — to carry out his suicide.
This week, lawyers for the 22-year-old woman, Michelle Carter, who was convicted in 2017, asked the United States Supreme Court to review her case, arguing that her conviction violated the First Amendment and due process. At the same time, a documentary about the case, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter,” was to air on HBO on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The events raised renewed interest in the troubling case, which experts say delved into new legal ground around suicide. Ms. Carter was sentenced to 15 months in a county jail; she began serving the sentence this year.
Here are three things to know about the case.
It is rare, but not unheard-of, for prosecutors to try to hold someone criminally liable for another person’s suicide. In looking at Ms. Carter’s case, Massachusetts’s highest court noted two earlier cases, involving a game of Russian roulette and a husband who helped his wife load a gun and advised her about how to use it.
What was different about Ms. Carter’s case, experts said, was that she was found to have caused her friend’s death by words alone. Ms. Carter was roughly an hour away from her friend, Conrad Roy III, 18, when he poisoned himself with carbon monoxide in his truck on July 12, 2014, in Fairhaven, Mass. But prosecutors built much of their case on text messages Ms. Carter had sent to Mr. Roy in the two weeks before his death as he said he was miserable and debated whether to kill himself. In numerous messages, Ms. Carter encouraged him to put aside his doubts and go through with it.
Prosecutors made much of Ms. Carter’s texts to Mr. Roy, but it was a last phone call, according to the judge in her case, that made Ms. Carter culpable.
According to prosecutors, Ms. Carter spoke on the phone with Mr. Roy as he sat in his truck in a remote spot in a Kmart parking lot, a compression pump filling the cab with fumes. The call was not recorded, but months later, Ms. Carter texted another friend and recounted the call: In the text, she said that Mr. Roy had grown scared at one point and climbed out of the truck, and that she had told him to get back in.
The judge, Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County Juvenile Court, said that ordering Mr. Roy to get back in the truck, and then failing to summon help, made Ms. Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
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The defense argued there was no proof of what Ms. Carter in fact said on the phone, and the HBO documentary questions whether Ms. Carter really ordered Mr. Roy to get back in the truck or merely claimed later to have done so.
“Michelle Carter has a lot of issues with deception with lying for attention,” the director, Erin Lee Carr, told The Associated Press. “How are we to trust that one sentence that it actually happened?”
This week, a lawyer for Ms. Carter said she was not culpable.
“Michelle Carter did not cause Conrad Roy’s tragic death and should not be held criminally responsible for his suicide,” the lawyer, Daniel Marx, said in an emailed statement.
The case drew intense national attention partly because it involved a relationship that largely played out in texts and Facebook messages, and partly because many of those messages were made public as part of the legal proceedings.
The case painted a portrait of two disturbed teenagers, who met on vacation in Florida in 2012 through their families. They lived less than an hour apart in Massachusetts but rarely saw each other in person. Still, their relationship was intense; they texted dozens of times a day. Ms. Carter spoke of Mr. Roy as her boyfriend, though he did not appear to regard her in the same way.
Ms. Carter suffered from an eating disorder and had been treated in a psychiatric hospital. Mr. Roy had been physically and verbally abused at home and had made several suicide attempts. In videos recorded on his computer and played in court, Mr. Roy called himself a “minuscule little particle on the face of this earth,” “an abortion,” and “no-good trash.”
When Mr. Roy talked about suicide Ms. Carter at first urged him not to, and to get help. But in July 2014, she abruptly changed her attitude and started encouraging him to do it, the exchanges of messages showed. Why she did is one of the enduring mysteries of the case. Prosecutors argued that she believed she would get attention and sympathy as the “grieving girlfriend.” A psychiatrist who testified for the defense said she was suffering from delusions brought about by a recent switch in antidepressant medications.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.