Can you Go to Prison for Texting?
Michelle Carter is a young woman in Boston who is on trial for manslaughter. While that is tragically unfortunate, the facts of this case are also highly unusual. Michelle’s boyfriend Conrad Roy III, the victim in this case, committed suicide. So why is she on trial? Michelle is accused of encouraging the act through a series of text messages that told Conrad to follow through on his plan and find peace by dying. Michelle was 17 and Conrad was 18 at the time of his death. Conrad died in his truck poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes, while texting and talking with Michelle.
In Massachusetts, involuntary manslaughter may be charged if a person commits a wanton or reckless act that could predictably lead to the death of another person. In other words, the prosecution believes it was reckless for Michelle to text Conrad to kill himself, as he ended up doing so. If convicted she faces up to 20 years in prison.
The texts indicate that Conrad wanted to kill himself and that Michelle supported his decision. They also show that he reached out to her in his final moments indicating that he was afraid, and she replied by reminding him that he wanted this and needs to follow through. The prosecution argues Michelle complained frequently of being unpopular and wanted to use Conrad’s death to garner sympathy and attention. Furthermore, she apparently claimed she had no idea where he was in the days before the suicide, although texts indicate she knew he was making his plans.
But Michelle argues she deeply regrets those last moments and wishes she had helped Conrad. The defense paints a picture of a troubled, lonely girl with emotional problems who also had an eating disorder and self-harm issues. Michelle further claims she loved Conrad and had planned a future with him.
So the question in the matter is whether Michelle’s encouragement led to Conrad’s suicide. While her behavior strikes most of us as reprehensible, there is no Massachusetts law that says one can’t tell another person to kill themselves. Therefore, the judge has to decide if her actions meet the standards of manslaughter in Massachusetts, and if Michelle’s own mental health issues are mitigating reasons for her actions.
This case is garnering attention not just because it is unusual but because it poses questions and implications related to cell phone use, text messaging, and a person’s virtual presence in a crime.
A final interesting factor in this case is that Michelle’s defense waived a jury trial and opted to just have the judge hear the case. This likely indicates that the defense thought the matter too emotionally charged for a fair jury deliberation and wanted a judge to look closely at the legal aspects of the matter.
The judge deliberated all week and delivered a guilty verdict on Friday morning.
For an in depth analysis of this fascinating case, check out the Is This Legal podcast where Russell and Colin dive into the legal issues surrounding this ruling.