Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Can Be Involuntary Manslaughter
On the same day a police officer in Minnesota was acquitted of murder after pumping five bullets into a man during a routine traffic stop, a girl in Massachusetts was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending a text.
The girl’s name is Michelle Carter; her victim was Conrad Roy III. The two met in 2012 when Carter was 15 and Roy was 16, and proceeded to develop a relationship that might at one time have been described as a folie á deux. Though they lived relatively close, they seldom saw one another, preferring to communicate through the heightened intensity of text. And many of their texts were about death. Specifically, his death and what her reaction to it would be.
On June 19, 2014, Carter texted, But the mental hospital would help you… I’m telling you, if you give them a chance, they can save your life.
(Carter had done her own stint in a psychiatric ward, presumably on the basis of documented behaviors that included cutting, anorexia, and severe depressive episodes.)
It doesn’t help, Roy texted back. Trust me.
(Roy had made at least four previous suicide attempts.)
Four days later, Carter was still trying to talk her boyfriend down: What is harming yourself gonna do? Nothing! It will make it worse!
Make the pain go away like you said, Roy replied.
But by July 7, Carter was helping Roy with his Internet research into dependable methods of generating carbon monoxide fumes inside a locked motor vehicle.
Five days later, Roy drove his truck into a Kmart parking lot just outside Boston, turned on the water pump he’d jerry-rigged to produce the deadly gas, and killed himself.
Teenage suicide is at least as old as Romeo and Juliet. Okay, okay — the Carter/Roy texts don’t rise to the level of Shakespeare’s poetry. But then Shakespeare’s characters didn’t have access to Google.
In retrospect, many of Carter’s texts to Roy are so ghoulish that given what happened to Roy, they seem positively heinous. One is tempted to use words like “immoral.”
However, it’s not at all clear that Carter and Roy are the only two teenagers in the history of Planet Earth to exchange texts of this nature, given the histrionic nature of adolescence in general and the lack of oversight that busy parents exercise.
If we’re not reading about other dead teenagers in Big Box parking lots, it could well be because the vast majority of teens don’t share Roy and Carter’s complicated psychiatric histories.
And the public may consider itself lucky that Roy’s web search for “suicide by cop” proved less fruitful than his other research.
In the opinion of Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz, who handed down the decision, the irrefutable evidence of Carter’s culpability was an exchange that took place when Roy appeared to change his mind as he sat breathing fumes. Roy opened the door to the cab of his truck and staggered out. Carter was on the phone with him at the time. She told him to get back in.
“She called no one and finally she did not issue a simple additional instruction — get out of the truck,” noted Judge Moniz.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, reckless or wanton behaviors that create a likelihood of substantial harm are sufficient to justify a finding of involuntary manslaughter.
And to Judge Moniz, Carter’s conduct constituted wanton and reckless behavior.
But did it?
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts found Judge Moniz’s verdict so troubling that it immediately issued a statement noting that the verdict “exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions… Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words.”
Many might be inclined to dismiss the ACLU’s arguments by noting that the Supreme Court put limits on free speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969): Incitements to lawless actions aren’t protected under the First Amendment. But nowhere in the General Laws of Massachusetts do injunctions exist that specifically enjoin against either suicide or the act of persuading someone to commit suicide.
No transcript exists of Carter’s last phone call with Roy. We know it took place from cell phone records, and we imagine we know its substance through communications Carter subsequently had with members of her social set.
On the night of Roy’s suicide, Carter texted a friend named Samantha Boardman: He just called me and there was a loud noise like a motor and I heard moaning… I think he just killed himself.
Two months later, Carter sent Boardman a text that was far more incriminating: Sam, [Roy’s] death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in Sam because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldnt [sic] have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn’t [sic] do it I wouldnt [sic] let him
But how reliable are the self-reports of a teenager with severe mental illness? A teenager, moreover, who was struggling to cope with changes to an antidepressant regimen that had left her — according to her expert psychiatrist — “involuntarily intoxicated?” (Okay, he was getting paid. Handsomely.)
One thing that’s clear from the voluminous texts exchanged between Carter and Roy is that Carter had a talent for hyperbole and a tendency to dramatize. It’s possible Carter may have glamorized that last fateful phone call with Roy for the benefit of what she imagined was an appreciative audience.
Carter continued texting Roy after his death. No fewer than 80 times.
You probably thought I was okay with it, she wrote in one of those texts, and You talked about being in heaven and being my angel and at the time I went along with it because i knew you weren’t gonna do anything. But you fucking did it and I’m so sorry I didn’t save you.
Once again, considerable ambiguity clings to these postmortem texts. Are they an expression of remorse? Proof that Carter wasn’t really assisting Roy because she never honestly expected him to follow through on it? Or a CYA strategy?
But the trail of breadcrumbs unifying events in this tragic story must lead to some causality. Justice demands it. So do news junkies. Even if the likely culprit may well be the culture of social media, which dominates the lives of teenagers and grownups alike, and which fetishizes the experience of the traumatized individual.