The state's highest court ruled Friday that a Plainville teenager must stand trial for involuntary manslaughter for allegedly persuading a friend to kill himself after he expressed second thoughts.
The Supreme Judicial Court held that a Bristol County grand jury had probable cause to indict Michelle Carter, 19, in the death of Conrad Roy III, 18, of Mattapoisett nearly two years ago, determining that she was "personally aware that her conduct was both reprehensible and punishable."
The unanimous decision marked the first time the court had ruled that an involuntary manslaughter indictment could stand on "the basis of words alone." The court found that through a stream of text messages and cellphone calls, Carter had established a "virtual presence at the time of the suicide."
Roy died in July 2014 in Fairhaven from carbon monoxide poisoning after he connected a generator to a truck's exhaust system. Roy and Carter spoke by phone for 47 minutes while he sat in the truck, and she allegedly told him to "get back in" the vehicle when he expressed doubts about taking his own life.
Carter, who was 17 at the time of Roy's suicide, was indicted last year as a youthful offender. Her lawyer, Joseph Cataldo of Franklin, sought to dismiss the charge, but a juvenile court judge denied the motion. Cataldo then appealed the decision to the SJC.
In its ruling, the court found there was probable cause to show that "the coercive quality of the defendant's verbal conduct overwhelmed whatever willpower the 18-year-old victim had to cope with his depression."
"But for the defendant's admonishments, pressure, and instructions, the victim would not have gotten back into the truck and poisoned himself to death," Justice Robert Cordy wrote in the ruling.
Legal experts said the decision broke new ground.
"I don't think [the SJC] has ever ruled if words alone can make one responsible for manslaughter," said Peter Elikann, a Boston lawyer and chairman of the Criminal Justice section of the Massachusetts Bar Association. "It was always thought that someone had to be involved in some kind of physical way."
Boston College law professor R. Michael Cassidy said the ruling represents an "incremental change" in the legal interpretation of involuntary manslaughter.
"This young woman's acts went beyond mere counseling or encouragement," Cassidy said. "They were disturbing. She basically bullied him into the act, even after he attempted to abandon it."
Roy's family has supported the charges, and his grandfather hailed the court's decision Friday.
"I hope they hold her accountable for her actions," said Conrad Roy Sr. "She told him to get back in the truck. She prodded him on. All of the text messages are pretty much self-explanatory."
On Friday, Carter's lawyer said he "respectfully disagrees with the court's ruling." Cataldo noted that the probable cause standard is far lower than proving that Carter committed involuntary manslaughter "beyond a reasonable doubt."
"It's clear she didn't cause his death," Cataldo said. "He caused his death."
Roy had been receiving treatment for mental health issues since 2011, and in 2013 attempted to commit suicide.
A spokesman for the Bristol district attorney's office said prosecutors welcomed the ruling, and are preparing for trial.
"We appreciate the court's thorough review of the law as it pertains to the facts of this case, and its decision to uphold the juvenile court's denial of the defendant's motion to dismiss,'' he said. "We will now focus our efforts on preparing for the upcoming trial in this case."
In arguments before the SJC, Boston defense attorney Dana Curhan asserted there is no Massachusetts law that permits the criminal prosecution of someone who urges another to end their life.
"There has never been a case where only words can support an indictment for manslaughter," Curhan said. "Prior cases have held that words alone cannot constitute manslaughter."
Moreover, Carter was communicating electronically and was not in Fairhaven with Roy, and therefore had no direct influence on his decision to get into the pickup truck on two occasions.
"She wasn't physically with him and she did not threaten him," Curhan said. "She did not coerce him. There is nothing but words telling him to do what he did . . . which was what he had planned to do."