COMMONWEALTH VS. MICHELLE CARTER
[Involuntary Manslaughter & Free Speech]
Seventeen-year-old defendant, Michelle Carter, was charged with involuntary manslaughter as a youthful offender for the suicide death of Conrad Roy, age eighteen. In Commonwealth v. Carter (2016) (Carter I) the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Juvenile Court judge’s denial of the motion to dismiss the youthful offender indictment.
After waiving her right to a jury trial, Carter’s case was tried to a judge in Juvenile Court over several days. The defendant was convicted and charged and appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The defendant challenged:
The Court ruled that the evidence presented was sufficient to support the judge’s finding of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed involuntary manslaughter as a youthful offender and that the other legal issues presented by the defendant lacked merit.
The Court affirmed the existing judgment.
On July 13, 2014 Conrad Roy’s body was found in his truck, parked in a store parking lot in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The victim had committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide produced by a gasoline powered water pump located in the truck.
The defendant and the victim first met in 2012 when they were both visiting relatives in Florida. Thereafter, they rarely saw each other in person, but they maintained a long-distance relationship by text messages and phone call conversations.
A frequent subject of their communications was the victim’s fragile mental health, including his suicidal thoughts. Between October 2012 and July 2014, the victim attempted suicide several times by various means, including overdoing on over-the-counter medication, drowning, water poisoning, and suffocation. None of these attempts succeeded.
At first, the defendant urged the victim to seek professional help for his mental illness. The victim ultimately would rebuff these efforts, and soon the tenor of their communications changed. The defendant began helping the victim plan how, where, and when he would commit suicide and downplayed his fears about how his suicide would affect his family. She also chastised him for his indecision and delay. An ample text message record supported these claims.
A trial judge would later find that the defendant’s actions from June 30 to July 12 constituted wanton or reckless conduct in serious disregard of the victim’s well being, but that this behavior did not cause his death per se.
In the days leading to July 12, 2014, the victim continued planning his suicide, including by securing a water pump that he would use to generate carbon monoxide in his closed truck. On July 12, the victim drove his truck to a local store’s parking lot and started the pump. While the pump was operating, filling the truck with carbon monoxide, the defendant and victim were in extensive contact by cell phone.
In a text message sent by the defendant to a friend at 8:02 PM shortly after the two phone calls with the victim, the defendant stated: “he just called me and there was a loud noise like a motor and I heard moaning like someone was in pain, and he wouldn’t answer when I said his name”. After staying on the phone for about 20 minutes, she sent more text messages to her friends saying she believed the victim was dead.
Weeks later the defendant texted one of her friends she texted the night of the incident in question stating:
“I failed [the victim] I wasn’t supposed to let that happen and now I’m realizing I failed him. [H]is death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in…because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t let him.”
The judge found that while the vehicle was filling with carbon monoxide, the victim got out of the truck seeking fresh air. When the defendant realized he had gotten out of the truck, she instructed him to get back in, knowing that it had become a toxic environment and knowing the victim’s fears, doubts, and fragile mental state. The victim followed that instruction and died soon after.
The judge noted that the defendant could hear the sound of the pump and the victim’s coughing and took no steps to save him. She did not call emergency personnel, the victim’s family, or instruct him to get out of the truck. The victim remained in the truck and succumbed to the carbon monoxide. The judge consequently concluded that the defendant’s actions and failure to act constituted wanton and reckless conduct that caused the victim’s death.
The Court ultimately rejected the defendant’s claim that her words to the victim, without any physical act on her part and even without her physical presence at the scene, could not constitute wanton or reckless conduct.The Court also ruled that there was ample evidence to establish probable cause that the defendant’s conduct was wanton or reckless under either a subjective or an objective standard.
The Court established that an ordinary person under the circumstances in question would have realized the gravity of the danger posed by telling the victim, who was mentally fragile, predisposed to suicidal inclination, and in the process of killing himself, to get back in the truck filling with carbon monoxide. The Court added that the defendant knew that she had some control over the actions of the victim.
The Court also rejected the claims that the involuntary manslaughter statute was unconstitutionally vague as applied to the defendant.
Sufficiency of the Evidence
The defendant argued that her conviction was unsupported by sufficient evidence. Furthermore, she argued that her conviction was improperly based on her after-the-fact statement, in her text message to a friend, that the victim “got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in”, a statement she asserts is uncorroborated.
While the Court acknowledged that a conviction cannot be based solely on a defendant’s extrajudicial confession, the defendant’s statement in the incident cited was not uncorroborated. The corroboration rule requires only that there be some evidence, besides the confession, that someone committed the criminal act—that is that the crime was real and not imaginary.The Court ruled that the statement was more than adequately corroborated not only by the victim’s death but also by text messages exchanged with the victim encouraging him to commit suicide, and by the fact that the defendant and the victim were in voice contact while the suicide was in progress. The defendant was, in essence, able to communicate with the victim.
The Court added that the defendant was not “confessing” to an imaginary crime. In sum, the judge was entitled to credit the defendant’s statement, and the corroborating details, that the victim had in fact gotten out of the truck and that the defendant ordered him back into the truck, ultimately causing his death.
The defendant also argued that her verdict in Carter I contained no express finding that her words had a “coercive quality” that caused the victim to follow through with his suicide. The Court dismissed this argument, stating that the those remarks were, as the judge stated, not intended as a comprehensive statement of all the facts he found or of all his legal rulings.
The Court agreed with the judge’s finding that the wanton and reckless conduct of the defendant created a situation where there was a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to the victim.The judge further found that this conduct caused the victim’s death beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge affirmed that until the victim got out of the truck, the victim was the cause of his own suicidal actions and reactions. However, the victim broke that chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle. The defendant ultimately overpowered the victim’s will and thus caused his death.+
In summary, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Due Process Claims
The defendant also argued that she lacked fair notice that she could be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for her role in the victim’s suicide and that her conviction therefore violated her right to due process. The Court ultimately rejected this claim that the law of involuntary manslaughter is unconstitutionally vague as applied to her conduct.
The Court maintained the view that the law in question is not vague. A statute is unconstitutionally vague if people of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning. Even though manslaughter is a common-law crime, it has long been established that wanton or reckless conduct that causes a person’s death constitutes involuntary manslaughter.
The Court stated that there is no doubt in the case in question that the defendant wantonly or recklessly instructed the victim to kill himself, and that her instructions caused his death. The Court further affirmed that common law provides sufficient notice that a person might be charged with involuntary manslaughter for reckless or wanton conduct, including verbal conduct, causing a victim to commit suicide. The law is not unconstitutionally vague as applied to the defendant’s conduct.
Free Speech Claims
The defendant also argued that her conviction of involuntary manslaughter violated her right to free speech under the First Amendment. The Court disagreed.
The Court ruled that no constitutional violation results from convicting a defendant of involuntary manslaughter for reckless and wanton, pressuring text messages and phone calls, preying upon well-known weaknesses, fears, anxieties and promises, that finally overcame the willpower to live of a mentally ill, vulnerable, young person, thereby coercing him to commit suicide.
The Court reasoned that a defendant cannot escape liability just because he or she happened to use words to carry out his or her illegal act.Although numerous crimes can be committed verbally, they are “intuitively and correctly” understood not to raise First Amendment concerns.The Court claimed that it has never been deemed an abridgement of freedom of speech to make a course of conduct illegal merely because the conduct was in part initiated, evidenced, or carried out by means of language, either spoken, written, or printed.
Nevertheless, the defendant contended that prosecuting and convicting her of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide effected a content-base restriction on speech that does not withstand strict scrutiny. In particular, she acknowledged the Commonwealth’s compelling interest in preserving human life but argued that the Court failed to determine in Carter Ithat the restriction on speech was narrowly tailored to further interest. The Court also rejected this argument, citing a “systematic campaign of coercion”.
The Court clarified that it is not punishing words alone, as the defendant claimed, but instead reckless or wanton words causing death. The restrictions on speech in this circumstance were erected to serve a “compelling purpose” according to the Court.
The Court noted that the verbal conduct targeted in this involuntary manslaughter case and in past involuntary manslaughter cases was different in kind and not degree but raises no First Amendment concerns.
“Infliction” of Serious Bodily Harm
The defendant argued that her conviction as a youthful offender could not survive because she did not inflict serious bodily harm on the victim. She argued that the term “infliction” required direct, physical causation of harm, not mere proximate causation, and that from her remote location, she could not have inflicted serious bodily harm on the victim within the meaning of the statute. The Court ultimately rejected what it called “unduly narrow interpretation” of the statute on involuntary manslaughter.
The Court noted the distinction that to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter the offense must involvethe infliction of serious bodily harm, not that the defendant himself and herself be the one who directly inflicted it.
The defendant argued, as she did in Carter I, that her action should have been evaluated under a “reasonable juvenile” standard rather than a “reasonable person” standard. She claimed that the Court should have considered whether an ordinary juvenile under the same circumstances would have realized the gravity of the danger.
The judge found that the defendant’s actions were wanton or reckless under the subjective measure, that is, based on her own knowledge of the danger to the victim and on her choice to run the risk that he would comply with her instructions to get back into the truck. The Court reasoned, given this finding it deemed accurate, that because the defendant’s conduct was wanton or reckless when evaluated under the subjective standard, there was no need to decide whether a different objective standard should apply to juveniles.
The Court recognized that the judge did in fact consider the defendant’s age and maturity when evaluating her actions and that he was familiar with the relevant case law and “mindful” of the general principles regarding juvenile brain development. He noted that the defendant was of an “age-appropriate level of maturity” and that her actions “were not spontaneous or impulsive”.
Lastly, the defendant argued that the judge wrongfully denied her motion in limine to admit expert testimony by a forensic psychologist. The witness would have testified as to general principles and characteristics of the undeveloped adolescent brain, but not as to the defendant specifically, as he had never examined her.
On this matter the Court ruled that the fact one judge properly exercised his discretion to admit expert testimony in one case does not meant that another judge abused his discretion by excluding similar testimony in a different case.The Court stated in sum that the judge did not abuse his discretion and that no prejudice could be perceived against the defendant in precluding the expert testimony.
Judgment The Court ruled that by wanton or reckless conduct, the defendant caused the victim’s death by suicide. Her conviction of involuntary manslaughter as a youthful offender was not legally or constitutionally infirm.
The judgment was AFFIRMED.
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Source: Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, SJC-12502