TAUNTON — Just days after Conrad Roy III was found dead in his pickup truck in a Fairhaven parking lot, Michelle Carter reached out to extend her condolences to his mother and ease the grieving parent’s guilt.
“You didn’t fail him, not even a little bit,” Carter wrote in a text message to Lynn Roy, who was blaming herself for her son’s suicide. “You tried your hardest, I tried my hardest, everyone tried their hardest to save him. But he had his mind set on taking his life.”
Left unsaid was that Carter had pressured her high school boyfriend to take his own life, even ordering him to “get back in” his truck when he had second thoughts, prosecutors said in the first day of Carter’s manslaughter trial Tuesday.
The controversial case, which has captured national attention, centers on whether Carter’s chilling words of encouragement, no matter how vile, should be considered free speech or rise to the level of criminal responsibility.
Roy was 18 when he killed himself in July 2014 by inhaling a fatal dose of carbon monoxide generated by a gasoline-powered water pump installed in the truck. Carter, then 17, had sent Roy dozens of text messages urging him to take his own life, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors say Carter effectively killed Roy with her reckless words, while Carter’s lawyers say the teenager was 30 miles away when Roy died and cannot be blamed for his decision to end his life.
In her opening statement Tuesday, Bristol Assistant District Attorney Maryclare Flynn said the texts to Roy’s mother were meant to mask the pivotal role Carter played in his death. In one message, sent to Lynn Roy in August 2014, Carter wrote that she had tried “so many times” to dissuade Roy from suicide.
Flynn described Carter as an emotionally needy teen who was anxious to improve her social standing and engaged in a “sick game of life and death.” Roy and Carter both struggled with mental health issues, but Carter relentlessly exploited Roy’s vulnerability in summer 2014, a time when her desperate efforts to befriend girls in her high school were rebuffed, Flynn said.
“She was trying to get close to them and be part of their lives,’’ Flynn said. Carter “needed something to get their attention and she used Conrad.”
The two discussed suicide multiple times over months, Flynn said. On the day he died, Carter was on the phone with Roy, listening for as long as 20 minutes as Roy succumbed to the carbon monoxide fumes.
“She never called anyone for help,’’ Flynn said. “The defendant never called the police, Conrad’s mother, or her own parents to tell them what was going on in that truck as she listened to him die.’’
After Roy’s death, Carter basked in the attention that came with being the “grieving girlfriend,” Flynn said. She wrote posts on Facebook about him and organized a baseball tournament in his memory in Plainville, where she lived, not in his hometown, Mattapoisett.
Carter’s lawyer, Joseph P. Cataldo, said in his opening statements Tuesday that Roy was a deeply troubled teenager who had long wanted to end his life, regardless of Carter’s actions.
“Conrad Roy was on this path to take his own life for years,’’ Cataldo said. “It was Conrad Roy’s idea to take his own life; it was not Michelle Carter’s idea. This was a suicide, a sad and tragic suicide, but not a homicide.”
In testimony Tuesday, Lynn Roy said her son took an overdose of an over-the-counter pain prescription in 2012 and was hospitalized. But over the next two years, his mental health improved, he graduated from high school, and he earned a maritime captain’s license. Conrad Roy moved in with his mother in 2014, after his relationship with his father became strained, she said.
Cataldo said Roy had tried to take his life two days before his death and had done Google searches about carbon monoxide poisoning and other ways to commit suicide. Roy equipped his truck with the generator that killed him, he said.
Carter and Roy met in 2012, but saw each other only about four times in person and engaged in a “long-term texting relationship,” Cataldo said. Amid the thousands of messages, Carter repeatedly urged Roy not to kill himself and seek professional help, he said. Carter also told a therapist she was “overwhelmed” by Roy’s problems, Cataldo said.
Pointing to the series of text messages that prosecutors say persuaded Roy to end his life, Cataldo said that Carter was taking prescription medication for “impulse control issues” and that its side effects included irritability and “lashing out.”
Carter’s lawyers had appealed the charges to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which last summer ruled 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.”
Carter waived her right to a jury trial, so the verdict will be decided by Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz.
Choking up during her testimony, Lynn Roy recounted the day her son died. In the hours before he was found, he had gone to the beach with her and siblings, showing no signs of distress, she testified. When the family returned home, Roy said he was going to a friend’s house. Lynn Roy casually asked if he’d be back for dinner.
“I don’t think so,’’ he replied.
It was the last time she saw her son alive.