Manslaughter-by-Phone: The Tragedy of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy

This week, Michelle Carter was imprisoned in Massachusetts for a jarring version of the crime of involuntary manslaughter. This case has an astounding twist: she was found guilty of manslaughter for sending text messages and having phone conversations to urge her 18 year-old long-distance boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to kill himself, something he’d allegedly been wanting and planning to do for a long time and finally did. Carter was 17 at the time of Mr. Roy’s suicide. Even when Mr. Roy was having second thoughts about killing himself, Ms. Carter urged him to carry forward and finish the job. He did. The Massachusetts high court decided that Ms. Carter, by her text messages and phone conversations, overwhelmed Mr. Roy’s fragile willpower and thus directly caused his death, nevermind the fact that she was nowhere near the location of his suicide at the time they were texting and talking with each other.

Ms. Carter is no sympathetic character here. How can she be, when she told an 18 year-old young man to get back in his gas-filled truck cabin and finish the job of killing himself that he had set out to do? But in jailing Ms. Carter for Mr. Roy’s suicide, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is perpetuating an outdated and dictatorial interpretation of mental competence and willpower in the case of Commonwealth vs. Carter, as it has done in similar cases for years. Additionally, the Court is ascribing direct causation and lethal culpability to Ms. Carter for nothing more than communicating her words by text and phone to encourage Mr. Roy’s suicide in a relationship where no legal duty of care or guardianship exists between them. While Court decisions may sometimes reflect the biases of public opinion, they should not be guided by such, but rather they should hold to legal principles that are the ever-developing, ever-progressing structures of logic and ethics.

Rather than consider the legality of euthanasia and self-willed suicide in our nation’s most progressive states and how similar principles of self-determination are at issue here in the Carter case, and rather than take due notice of the more mature and independent nature of 18 year-olds in 2019 — young men and women who are facing great psychological pressures in a far more open and honest way than ever before and being required to deal with that in a society that largely still lacks a sufficiently strong mental health care infrastructure, the Massachusetts Court misses an opportunity to advance with the times and instead looks too far backwards in crafting its stance on this novel subject matter.

In its decision, the Court relies upon the precedent of its own dated ruling in Commonwealth vs. Atencio, a 1963 case where two defendants were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for playing a game of Russian Roulette with a third person who shot and killed himself in the process. In Atencio, the Court discusses the central issue of causation in the context of two other cases raised by the defendants in their legal briefs seeking to show that they were not the “direct” cause of the third person’s suicide when he pulled the trigger of the gun that he held to his own head.

First it’s important to understand that causation is a central element in the crime of involuntary manslaughter. Relying on precedent, the Atencio Court stated that in order to find the defendants guilty, the Prosecutor must show that they were the “direct” cause of the victim’s death: that “but for” the actions of the defendants, the death would not have occurred. This potentially vague “but for” definition of direct causation is further clarified in the precedents and related cases considered and discussed by the Court. The Atencio defendants argued that their Russian Roulette case was similar to past court cases involving illegal drag racing deaths where another racer was killed by either driving off the road or into oncoming traffic. In such cases, the surviving drag racers were found by the Court to not be the direct cause of the other racer’s death and thus not guilty. Linking the facts and legal principles of their own case to the prior related court decisions, the Russian Roulette case defendants reminded the Court that the dead drag racer was found by the Court to be responsible for his own death. Specifically, the Court in those drag racing cases stated, the Prosecutor “fails to allege any act or acts on the part of the defendant which caused or contributed to the loss of control of the vehicle driven by the deceased, other than the fact that they were engaged in a race at the time.” In other words, the surviving drag racer didn’t kill the other racer since they were not driving his car off the road or into oncoming traffic, or otherwise directly causing that deadly accident to occur. Again, the dead man was responsible for his own death. The Russian Roulette defendants argued that similarly the dead man in their case shot himself in the head, and their mere participation in the game does not make them culpable because they did not kill him: he killed himself! The Atencio Court in their case disagreed, and the Court in Carter echoed that same decision and found Ms. Carter guilty of Mr. Roy’s suicide.

Just as we may dislike Ms. Carter for various reasons, we may justifiably castigate drag racers. We may scorn the illegal activity of drag racing, just as we may scorn the sick and illegal game of Russian Roulette. But the death of a racer cannot fairly be attributed to all the surviving racers who had nothing to do with his death save for the fact that they were all racing at the same time — as the Court in those racing cases stated itself!

So what is it that differentiates those drag racing cases from the case of the Russian Roulette players, or from the case of Ms. Carter? In those drag racing cases, we’re dealing with the macho act of street racing (right?), where manly men face off against each other on the street, like John Travolta in Grease or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. These heroes of the Silver Screen are quite different from a few drunk men playing at suicide or downright committing it, at least in the Court’s eyes it seems.

Most problematically, the Atencio Court far too vaguely differentiates those two earlier drag racing cases from this Russian Roulette matter, stating: “Whatever may be thought of those two decisions, there is a very real distinction between drag racing and “Russian roulette.” In the former much is left to the skill, or lack of it, of the competitor. In “Russian roulette” it is a matter of luck as to the location of the one bullet, and except for a misfire (of which there was evidence in the case at bar) the outcome is a certainty if the chamber under the hammer happens to be the one containing the bullet.”

So the differentiating factor is luck?!

Of course, one can easily argue that there is much bad luck involved in the death of the drag racer in the prior cases, and it’s bad luck that kills the player in Russian Roulette as well. But in its ruling, the Atencio Court focuses on the so-called “skill” of drag racers. Mind you, we’re talking about people who line up on a straightaway at night and drop their leaden heel on the gas pedal — we’re not talking Michael Schumacher of Formula One fame here. People playing Russian Roulette — being arguably suicidal — do not get the same respect from the Court, it seems. They are viewed as weak, lacking competence and sufficient willpower — at least that’s how the Court views the unlucky one who died. (Once upon a time, there were Tsarist era officers who might have disagreed with the Court’s perspective on Russian Roulette here. Nevermind that anachronism except for the point that with time opinions change, and such dynamic perspectives should not be the stuff of legal discourse in a High Court of the United States.)

It is in this biased way that the Supreme Judicial Court has viewed the current case of Michelle Carter. Their written opinion makes it clear that they believe that her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, killed himself because he was in a so-called weakened position, lacking competence to decide his own fate, his willpower being easily overwhelmed by the texted and phone-spoken words from his 17 year-old girlfriend who encouraged him to complete his suicide.

Think about that. The case’s statement of facts gives us some insight into what happened. With seeming suicidal intent, Mr. Roy acquired the equipment to kill himself: a gas powered water pump that he knew would quickly fill the cabin of his truck with lethal quantities of carbon monoxide. He consulted with Ms. Carter about that water pump:

“Defendant: “Well there’s more ways to make CO. Google ways to make it. . . .”

Victim: “Omg”

Defendant: “What”

Victim: “portable generator that’s it”

Defendant: “That makes CO?”

Victim: “yeah! It’s an internal combustion engine.”

Defendant: “Do you have one of those?”

Victim: “There’s one at work.”“

- Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, page 5, Feb. 6, 2019.

Mr. Roy filled that water pump with gasoline. He placed it in his pickup truck’s cabin. He closed the windows. He turned on the pump. He sat there. He breathed it in. After some time, he exited the truck, called Ms. Carter and expressed doubts about the suicide. She told him to get back in and to achieve his goal. He did. Id. at page 10, 11.

Because Mr. Roy was suicidal, the Court would have us presume and infer that he was therefore logically in a mentally weakened state of mind, lacking sufficient willpower and competence. That premise should not be accepted without question.

And even if Mr. Roy was in such a weakened state of mind, how does that make Ms. Carter culpable for his own acts and decisions, for she was not his keeper, not his legal guardian or custodian, not a licensed doctor or therapist who had taken on a legal obligation to care for Mr. Roy.

She was his 17 year-old long-distance girlfriend, and nothing more. Yes, perhaps her actions were ugly and foolish, and while we may expect more compassion and wherewithal from a 17 year-old, how can we legally require more of her? How can we expect so much more that we ascribe to her the legal culpability of an illegal killing for Mr. Roy’s suicide so many miles away?

“Although we recognize that legal causation in the context of suicide is an incredibly complex inquiry, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding of proof of such causation beyond a reasonable doubt in the instant case. The judge could have properly found, based on this evidence, that the vulnerable, confused, mentally ill, eighteen year old victim had managed to save himself once again in the midst of his latest suicide attempt, removing himself from the truck as it filled with carbon monoxide. But then in this weakened state he was badgered back into the gas-infused truck by the defendant, his girlfriend and closest, if not only, confidant in this suicidal planning, the person who had been constantly pressuring him to complete their often discussed plan, fulfill his promise to her, and finally commit suicide. And then after she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die.”

- Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, page 19, Feb. 6, 2019.

What is the message here about depression, about suicide, about people who want to kill themselves and do so? Except for only a few states, euthanasia is illegal in the USA. The same applies to many European nations. Assisted suicide is a crime for reasons similar to those that are used to convict Ms. Carter. The shocking and crucial difference in the Carter decision is that, unlike in euthanasia cases, Ms. Carter did not pull the proverbial plug, nor did she build some Kevorkian suicide machine — a machine (illegal in states prohibiting euthanasia) that helps suicidal people to kill themselves. Unlike even the drag racing cases discussed above, she wasn’t even near the scene of the crime. She didn’t acquire the equipment for Mr. Roy that he used to kill himself. She didn’t sit him in the seat of his truck, pull up its windows, close its doors, and gas him to death. This is gruesome, but it is consequential and true.

Mr. Roy killed him self. Did he know what he was doing? Did he want that outcome?

“The pathologist, Dr. Faryl Sandler, testified that Roy had no alcohol or illicit drugs in his system, just lethal amounts of carbon monoxide and prescription antidepressants. […] Under cross-examination by Carter’s attorney, however, Sandler acknowledged that she listed suicide as the cause of death on Roy’s death certificate. The prosecution also played two videos found on Roy’s computer he had made about a month before his death in which he explained his inner turmoil. In one, he called himself a “minuscule, little particle on the face of this earth” and “no good trash.” But he also expressed hope, calling himself “nice and caring” and saying “Look at me. I’ve got nice teeth. I’ve got a nice smile.”” [Emphasis added.]

- “Police: Teens texted about suicide before death”, Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 9, 2017.

When Mr. Roy had doubts in the middle of it all, he called his girlfriend, and she urged him to complete the job, a goal he’d been consistently discussing with her for an extended period of time.

Look at their text messages from the time in question, as re-printed in the Court’s opinion:

“Defendant: “You just need to do it Conrad or I’m gonna get you help”

Defendant: “You can’t keep doing this everyday”

Victim: “Okay I’m gonna do it today”

Defendant: “Do you promise”

Victim: “I promise babe”

Victim: “I have to now”

Defendant: “Like right now?”

Victim: “where do I go? :(“

Defendant: “And u can’t break a promise. And just go in a quiet parking lot or something”“

- Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, page 5, Feb. 6, 2019.

Like the Court did, some might argue that Ms. Carter should have called the police, called a suicide hotline, called his parents, told a teacher, or asked for help from her own parents in dealing with this situation. Some might argue that nobody who loves somebody would allow or encourage suicide. There are other opinions on this matter, as can be seen in states and nations that have legalized euthanasia.

“In summary, the principle of nonmaleficence states that no harm should be brought upon any person. However, if a person is suffering, is terminally ill, and or the quality of life is poor, than the use of euthanasia could be considered acceptable. The act of euthanasia ends the harm of an intractable situation. Physicians should be free to practice euthanasia if requested by their patient. Assisting a chronically suffering person to die should not be a breach of the principles of the Hippocratic oath. By practicing euthanasia, the physician does “good of the sick.” The physician is relieving the person of the intractable pain and suffering of life. By relieving the individual of the pain of her/his condition, euthanasia is not inflicting harm but is an act of nonmaleficence towards the human being. It is an act of love.”

- David San Filippo Ph.D., “Euthanasia: An Act of Love”, National Louis University Digital Commons@NLU, 2013.

Yet again, the Carter case is not a case of euthanasia. It’s a case where essentially a 17 year-old girl is convicted of involuntary manslaughter for directly causing via text messages and phone-spoken words of encouragement (i.e., to finish the gruesome task) the death of her 18 year-old suicidal boyfriend. One central error of the Court here is its failure to dignify the desire to die, and that is the crossover with euthanasia cases. The Court fails to understand how a person of sound mind and self-motivated willpower can desire to die, can choose to die, and can take the necessary steps to intentionally cause his own death. Beware the person who encourages such an act, at least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In the midst of all this, it may be helpful to remember some historical context. The crime of murder is a crime against the State in our national jurisprudence, which is derived from ancient English Common Law where traditionally all life belongs to the King. Historically, the taking of any life was a taking of the King’s property, and in medieval times the King of England was considered a holy figure acquiring his right to rule through divine grace and authority.

This ancient notion of the Divine Right of Kings is subtly alluded to in the Carter Court’s reasoning. The Court argues that the State has a compelling interest in preserving human life. It relies on its decision in the Atencio case to underscore this point, which in turn relies on an earlier related decision from the Indiana Supreme Court, namely State v. Plaspohl which stated:

“It is a basic concept of our society that the life of every man is both divinely and humanly significant. Every death upon the highway is more than a statistic. It is a tragedy which affects not only the individual and his family, but all of society. And if the death results from the reckless use of the highway, the fact that the deceased joined in the reckless activity does not negate the fact of the death, nor does it assuage the loss to the family of the deceased or the community. Reckless homicide is a crime committed against the state.” [Emphasis added.]

It is with these notions of religious divinity and ‘crimes against the state’ that the Carter Court inserts itself into the suicide of an arguably very depressed young adult. Outraged perhaps by the taking from the state of a divine life, the Supreme Judicial Court imprisoned this week the 17 year-old girlfriend who encouraged his final act.

But the other major error the Court makes is that it forgets: this final act was his.

“When Mr. Roy told Ms. Carter in June 2014 that he was considering suicide, she told him he had a lot to live for and urged him to seek help. “I’m trying my best to dig you out,” Ms. Carter wrote. “I don’t wanna be dug out,” Mr. Roy answered, adding later, “I WANT TO DIE.” By early July, she began to embrace the idea. “If this is the only way you think you’re gonna be happy, heaven will welcome you with open arms,” she wrote. They talked at length about how he could kill himself with carbon monoxide. “If you emit 3200 ppm of it for five to ten mins you will die within a half hour,” she wrote. In the last days of his life, she told him repeatedly, “You just need to do it.””

- Katharine Q. Seelye and Jess Bidgood, “Guilty Verdict for Young Woman Who Urged Friend to Kill Himself”, The New York Times, June 16, 2017.

Coincidentally perhaps, the Massachusetts Courts are currently handling a euthanasia-related case brought by two doctors seeking an order from the Court relieving them of any criminal culpability for providing lethal medications to terminally ill patients seeking to commit suicide:

“The lawsuit aims to include Massachusetts among states such as Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California and Colorado and the District of Columbia that allow physicians to provide aid in dying, according to right-to-die advocates.”

- Nate Raymond, “Massachusetts judge allows right-to-die lawsuit to move forward”, June 5, 2017.

One of the doctors suing the Commonwealth in this case is a terminally ill cancer patient. His name is Roger Kligler, and he wrote an opinion piece two years ago in Boston Magazine explaining why he is suing the state for his right to die on his own terms:

“This concept, of course, is not a new one. Similar medical practices are already authorized in five states — Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California — and voters in Colorado approved a ballot measure in favor of it this past November. Yet somehow, Massachusetts, the world’s hub of medical innovation, lags on this critically important right. To date, the state has failed to explicitly authorize medical aid in dying; in 2012 a ballot initiative narrowly failed after opponents outspent proponents by a 5-to-1 margin, and legislation has repeatedly floundered despite a growing number of bill cosponsors each year. From my vantage point, not only is it immoral to forbid physicians from offering this option to terminally ill adults, it’s also bad public policy that makes one of the most difficult experiences a dying person and his or her family will ever have to work through exponentially harder.”

- Roger Kligler, MD, “The Death I Want”, Boston Magazine, Jan. 15, 2017.

It is this same dictatorial and outdated approach to suicide which Dr. Kligler identifies in this passage that applies as well to the way the Court has treated the case of Michelle Carter and the suicide of Conrad Roy. We may never know why Mr. Roy killed himself, but arguably that is none of our business. What matters legally now is the issue of whether Mr. Roy had the right to do so, and whether by wanting to and actually committing suicide he was acting incompetently, weakly, and without sufficient willpower. In its conviction of Ms. Carter, the Court implicitly seems to conclude that Mr. Roy did not have the right to kill himself, and by the mere fact that he was suicidal that Mr. Roy’s mental state was weakened and that he lacked sufficient willpower.

If we are to look to the statements of Dr. Kligler as quoted above, it seems however that self-willed death in the face of great pain is an act that necessitates strength, willpower, competence, and intentionality. While we cannot infer in Mr. Roy’s actions the degree of these same qualities, we cannot discount out-of-hand that his final act lacked strength, willpower, competence, and intentionality. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court seems disinterested in carefully and thoughtfully attending to this perspective in the Carter case, just as it does in its general oversight of euthanasia cases. These very cases deal with men who want to die, but in terms of their willpower and self-consciousness are they so different from the kind of men who want to drag race on the streets at night — at least in the way the Court and the Silver Screen have regarded such men?

And in casting the net of culpability, who else will next fall in its clasp? What about spectators cheering at another lethal drag race or at an underground bare knuckles fight club that turns deadly? What about family members discussing terminating care for a patient on life support? What about teens or internet trolls texting out the common jibe “kill yourself”, as they do, especially if directed at a person contemplating suicide? Though some have argued that the Court has clearly defined and presently limited its rules of criminality in this case, what’s to say it will not continue to expand its jurisprudence with the biases of the times just as it did from Atencio to Carter? That’s the problem here when you apply temporal biases rather than legal logic and progressive ethics to a case. The science of law has progressed, as we can see in forerunner states like Colorado and Hawaii. So should the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in this area of jurisprudence.

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