Before they put on their case Friday, Michelle Carter’s lawyers will ask the judge presiding over her manslaughter trial to issue a finding of not guilty due to insufficient evidence.
It’s a routine motion during criminal trials and not often granted, especially in high-profile cases.
But this time could be different, legal experts said.
“I think there’s a decent chance in this case,” said Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk Law professor. “The question is, even if everything the prosecution says is true, can you say as a matter of law that [Carter’s actions] caused [the victim’s] death? And I think that’s a real question” here.
In a disturbing case that has grabbed national headlines, Carter, 20, is charged with involuntary manslaughter in Bristol Juvenile Court for allegedly cajoling her friend Conrad Roy III, 18, into killing himself in July 2014 in a series of text messages. Prosecutors rested their case Thursday.
They also allege Carter was criminally reckless because she was on a cellphone listening as Roy, of Mattapoisett, was slowly overcome by carbon monoxide fumes in his truck in Fairhaven but failed to alert first responders or his relatives. Carter could serve up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Judge Lawrence Moniz is serving as fact-finder in the jury-waived trial.
He has viewed chilling texts that Carter sent to Roy -- who like her battled mental health issues -- urging him to commit suicide shortly before his death.
But prosecutors, while laying out a “horrific” case, may not have the law on their side, so Moniz could very well issue a not guilty finding before hearing any defense witnesses, Cavallaro said.
She said individuals who commit suicide are generally assumed to possess free will under the law, except in extreme cases, such as one instance in the 1920s when a woman drank poison after being abducted and brutalized by her male captor.
“But that’s pretty unusual,” Cavallaro said. “You want to see [Carter] punished, because morally we find it so appalling -- what kind of person does that? But that’s not exactly the same question” as the legal matter.
Robert Bloom, a Boston College Law professor, said defense motions for a directed not guilty finding are rarely granted in high-profile trials, in part because juries usually decide those cases.
“The judge has the safety of the jury,” Bloom said. “By that I mean, the judge doesn’t really have to decide if he doesn’t think there’s much of a case, if he has confidence that the jury will decide the same way.”
But Moniz is the sole arbiter in the closely watched Carter trial.
“The piece that I think may be missing is whether her actions caused [Roy] to commit suicide, the so-called proximate cause of this whole thing,” Bloom said. “Was it her [texts], or was he going to do it anyway? And in that way, the judge could indeed do a directed [not guilty] finding.”
Prosecutors, however, were given a vote of confidence last year by the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The SJC ruled last summer that a grand jury had probable cause to indict Carter, determining in a unanimous decision that she was “personally aware that her conduct was both reprehensible and punishable.”
The decision marked the first time the court 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.”
“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 opinion.