A woman who sent her boyfriend a barrage of text messages urging him to kill himself when they were both teenagers was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter in a trial that raised questions about whether words can kill.
The judge found that Michelle Carter caused the death of Conrad Roy III, who intentionally filled his truck with carbon monoxide in a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, store parking lot in July 2014.
Carter, who faces up to 20 years in prison, cried and clutched a handkerchief to her face as Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz detailed her conduct and the circumstances of Roy’s death, but she was stoic when the verdict was formally pronounced. As spectators and members of both the Roy and Carter families left the courtroom, she sat at the defense table, sobbing, while her lawyers tried to comfort her.
The judge focused his ruling on three words Carter said to the 18-year-old Roy after he climbed out of his truck as it was filling with toxic gas and told her he was scared.
“Get back in,” Carter told Roy, according to a friend who testified that Carter described the conversation a text message to her about a month after Roy died.
The judge said those words constituted “wanton and reckless conduct.”
He said Carter, then 17, had a duty to call someone for help when she knew Roy was attempting suicide. Yet she did not call the police or Roy’s family, he noted.
“She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck,” the judge said.
The case provided a disturbing look at teen depression and suicide. Carter and Roy met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. They only met in person a handful of times.
Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.
The sensational trial was closely watched in legal circles and a hot topic on social media, in part because of the insistent tone of text messages Carter sent to Roy.
“You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t,” Carter wrote to Roy the day of his suicide.
“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready … just do it babe,” she wrote in another text that day.
In the end, the judge found that it was not the coercive text messages that caused Roy’s death. It was Carter’s insistence that he get back in the truck.
The judge ruled that Carter can remain free on bail but ordered her not to make any contact with Roy’s family or leave the state. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 3.
Carter’s lawyer, Joseph Cataldo, argued that Roy was determined to kill himself and nothing Carter did could change that. He said Carter initially tried to talk Roy out of it and urged him to get professional help, but eventually went along with his plan.
The judge said he did not take into account in his verdict Roy’s previous suicide attempts.
Roy’s father said the family was pleased with the conviction.
“This has been a very tough time for our family, and we’d like to just process this verdict that we are happy with,” Conrad Roy Jr. said.
Assistant District Attorney Katie Rayburn said the case dealt with important societal issues, “but in the end, the case was really about one young man and one young woman who were brought together by tragic circumstances.”
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the conviction, saying it “exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections” guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. constitutions.
Matthew Segal, the ACLU’s legal director for Massachusetts, called Roy’s suicide tragic but said, “It is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.”