If encouraging unstable people to kill themselves isn’t illegal, it should be
Conrad Roy, 18 and dangerously depressed, was wearing a blue Boston Strong T-shirt, shorts, and sunglasses when he parked his black pickup near the Kmart in Fairhaven in the summer of 2014.
He turned on a gasoline-powered water pump in the back of the cab, and carbon monoxide began to fill the compartment.
At some point, he panicked and decided he didn’t want to die after all. He got out of his truck and called his 17-year-old virtual girlfriend, Michelle Carter, who was 40 miles away in Plainville.
Carter told him to get back in the truck. He did so, and he died. She kept him on the phone the whole time, listening to him draw his last raspy breaths.
Michelle Carter is 20 years old now. She looks younger. She is petite, perfectly coiffed, the best-dressed alleged killer I’ve seen in years. She has been sitting at the defendant’s table in Taunton Trial Court all week, the accused in the first involuntary manslaughter prosecution of its kind in Massachusetts.
The weapons she used to kill Conrad Roy were words, delivered by phone, mostly text messages.
Michelle Carter did more than encourage Conrad Roy to kill himself. She pressured him. She gave him instructions on how to do it. She reassured him.
“All you have to do is turn on the generator and you will be free,” she texted.
She grew impatient when he dithered on a method.
“Hang yourself,” she texted him, “jump off a building, stab yourself idk [I don’t know] there’s a lot of ways.”
She mocked him when he expressed reservations.
“People who commit suicide don’t think this much,” she texted. “They just do it.”
She was Conrad’s suicide coach.
After Conrad killed himself, she expressed consciousness of guilt. She knew she did wrong. She admitted “his death is my fault.”
“I helped ease him into it and told him it was okay, I was talking to him on the phone when he did it,” she texted a friend. “I could have easily stopped him or called the police but I didn’t.”
Bristol County prosecutors say Michelle Carter did all this because she was starved for friends and attention. Having a suicidal boyfriend made her a player. Having a boyfriend who killed himself made her a star. Conrad Roy was, perversely, a status symbol for a lonely, troubled girl.
Carter’s lawyer, Joseph Cataldo, says she was struggling with her own mental health issues. She was cutting herself. She was suicidal. She had suggested that she and Conrad get psychiatric help together. She sent Conrad links on how to get help. She was, he said, involuntarily intoxicated by her medication.
But Joe Cataldo can’t explain away those texts.
Cataldo wisely chose a bench trial, taking Carter’s fate out of the hands of a jury and leaving it for Judge Lawrence Moniz to decide. That legal strategy has drained a considerable amount of emotion from the courtroom. Moniz has repeatedly stopped the prosecution’s efforts to read the damning texts in court, saying he can read them himself.
But those texts remain in a virtual cloud that hangs over Michelle Carter’s head.
Carter’s words satisfy two theories under which involuntary manslaughter can be proved: wanton or reckless conduct — conduct that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another — and wanton or reckless failure to act to prevent that harm.
The prosecution rested on Thursday. On Friday, unless Moniz grants a defense motion for a directed verdict of not guilty, Cataldo will begin defending the indefensible.
However this case ends, it highlights that Massachusetts, unlike some states, lacks a law that specifically makes it illegal to encourage or pressure people to kill themselves.
Many lawyers think this prosecution is a stretch. They believe what Michelle Carter did was morally repugnant, but not illegal. If that’s the law, the law needs to change.
If pressuring someone to kill themselves isn’t blatantly illegal, it should be.