Pictured: Woman holding phone. Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash.

By Fae Patton

Content Warning: Suicide

In the days leading up to her boyfriend’s suicide, seventeen-year-old Michelle Carter texted him four times urging him, “You just [have] to do it.”[1]  Recently, a Massachusetts judge ordered Carter, now twenty-two, to begin serving a fifteen-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter because of those text messages and phone call conversations despite her not being physically present during her boyfriend’s death.[2]  Carter’s landmark case may set the precedent for twenty-first century criminal law in a social media age and will likely not be the last time a conviction is entered based on the actions of a “virtually present” defendant.[3]

On July 13, 2014, a police officer found eighteen-year-old Carter Roy III deceased in a parked truck in a store parking lot.[4]  The medical examiner concluded that Roy’s cause of death was suicide due to carbon monoxide inhalation from a gasoline-powered water pump located in the truck.[5] Roy’s death made national headlines when detectives discovered a series of text messages from Roy’s girlfriend, Carter, encouraging and instructing Roy to kill himself.[6]  Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter as a youthful offender in Roy’s death.[7] 

Carter’s conviction raises the question, “When does bullying cross over into committing a homicide?”[8] While cyberbullying legislation already exists, the criminalization of those who assist another in committing suicide, particularly using technology, is a recent phenomenon.[9]  Carter’s case and eventual conviction appeared in many news stories because the facts of the case were unlike previous cyberbullying or assisted suicide cases.[10]  Unlike most assisting or inciting suicide cases, Carter was not physically with Roy at the time of his death.[11]  Carter’s conviction marks the first time in American case law in which a defendant was convicted of homicide for solely verbally encouraging a victim to kill himself.[12]  

Massachusetts does not have a statute imposing criminal liability on one who assists another in committing suicide.[13]  Therefore, the prosecutor and judge in Carter’s case had to make the difficult decision of whether Carter would go unpunished or whether she should be convicted of homicide despite her not bearing full causal responsibility for Roy’s death.[14]  The prosecutor ultimately decided to charge Carter with unintentionally causing Roy’s death, though her role was far from unintentional.[15]

One reason Carter’s case is so unique is because, in addition to exchanging text messages with Roy, Carter was also on the phone with Roy as he was in the truck dying.[16]  At one point while they were on the phone, Roy exited the truck because he was scared, and Carter told him to get back into the truck.[17]  After Roy’s death, Carter admitted via text message to a friend, Samantha Boardman, that she could have talked Roy out of completing the suicide or called authorities, but she did not.[18]  Once Carter learned that police were looking through Roy’s phone, she attempted to delete text messages that she believed investigators would find incriminating, and she texted Boardman, “His family will hate me and I can go to jail.”[19]  Because Carter understood the repercussions of her role in Roy’s death and took no action to prevent it, the court determined that Carter’s wanton or reckless conduct was the cause of Roy’s death.[20]

During the trial, Carter argued that she engaged only in protected free speech, she inflicted no injury upon Roy, and he freely chose to kill himself.[21]  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected her argument, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support a probable cause finding that Carter’s command to Roy in the final moments of his life to get back in his truck was a direct, causal link to his death.[22]  Matt Segal, the legal director of The Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is concerned about the implications Carter’s conviction will have on future cases involving crimes based solely on free speech.[23]  Segal worries that the decision “tells prosecutors that they can bring charges against individuals based on arbitrary and subjective determinations of what speech is noble and what speech is criminal.”[24]

The court recognized the significance of this case and carefully articulated what the case was and, more importantly, was not about to distance it from typical assisted suicide or cyberbullying cases.[25]  Carter’s case was not about a person seeking to help another cope with a terminal illness or supporting a mature adult who decided to end his life.[26]  Rather, Carter engaged in a “systematic campaign” in which she was “virtually present” and acted to subvert Roy’s willpower in favor of her own.[27] 

By differentiating Carter’s actions from cyberbullying or assisting suicide, the court made the smart and innovative choice to instead convict Carter for what she truly did: cause the death of another through wanton or reckless conduct.[28]  Carter may be the first “virtually present” defendant convicted of a crime, but in a digital age when people can electronically communicate around the clock, she will likely not be the last.[29]

[1] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624, 629 (2016).

[2] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 481 Mass. 352, 352 (2019).

[3] See Bob McGovern, Michelle Carter Found Guilty in Landmark Texting Suicide Case, Boston Herald (Nov. 17, 2018, 12:00 AM), https://www.bostonherald.com/2017/06/16/michelle-carter-found-guilty-in-landmark-texting-suicide-case/.

[4] See Carter, 474 Mass. at 625.

[5] Id.

[6] See Ashley B. Chin, Suicide by Text: The Case of Michelle Carter, 21 J. Tech. L. & Pol’y 99, 100 (2017).

[7] See Carter, 474 Mass. at 637 (explaining that Carter’s indictment as a youthful offender on the underlying involuntary manslaughter charge was supported by the evidence because involuntary manslaughter carries a potential punishment of incarceration in state prison and is inherently a crime that involves the infliction of serious bodily harm, and because Carter was seventeen years old at the time of the offense).

[8] See Lindsey Bever, Kayla Epstein & Kristine Phillips, Her Texts Urged a Boyfriend to Kill Himself. A Judge Just Upheld her Conviction., Wash. Post (Feb. 6, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/crime-law/2019/02/06/her-texts-urged-boyfriend-kill-himself-judge-just-upheld-her-conviction/?utm_term=.bf08a0cfae18(quoting Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles).

[9] See Chin, supra note 6, at 102.

[10] See Guyora Binder & Luis Chiesa, The Puzzle of Inciting Suicide, 56 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 65, 66 (2019).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See Kligler v. Healy, 34 Mass. L. Rptr. 239 1, 5 (Super. Ct. 2017).

[14] See Binder & Chiesa, supra note 10, at 84.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 77.

[17] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624, 629 (2016).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 630.

[21] See Binder & Chiesa, supra note 10, at 75, 128 (explaining that verbal encouragement of criminal conduct does not amount to protected free speech).

[22] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624, 636 (2016).

[23] See Bever, Epstein & Phillips, supra note 8.

[24] Id.

[25] See Commonwealth v. Carter, 474 Mass. 624, 636 (2016) (noting Carter argued that the involuntary manslaughter indictment was flawed because the grand jurors did not consider the charges from the perspective of a “reasonable juvenile of the same age” standard, but since Massachusetts currently does not require that a grand jury consider charges based on such a standard, the argument was therefore waived).

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] See McGovern, supra note 3.

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