Few criminal trials in Massachusetts have provoked as much outrage as the case against Michelle Carter, the young woman who is charged with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly pressuring her boyfriend via text message to kill himself in 2014.
The negative publicity was intense after the death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III so Carter’s lawyers opted for a bench trial. They’ll learn whether the gamble paid off at 11 a.m. Friday, when Bristol Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz announces his verdict.
Prosecutors presented a novel legal theory: reams of texts. Facebook conversations and Snapchat exchanges sent by Carter, then a 17-year-old with a psychiatric history, caused the death of Roy, who battled depression.
Adding more intrigue is the decision by Carter’s defense team to waive a jury trial, in favor of having a judge rule from the bench.
Legal specialists interviewed Thursday said that strategy carries significant risk.
M. Gerald Schwartzbach, a San Francisco-based defense lawyer whose clients have included Hollywood actor Robert Blake and NFL star Marshawn Lynch, said he has never waived a trial by jury in decades of practice.
“With twelve jurors, all you need is one juror voting your way to prevent a conviction,” Schwartzbach said. “With a [bench] trial, there’s only person there.”
At the same time, he said, jurors can be swayed by emotion in a high-profile case.
“It doesn’t matter what the evidence or the law is, if you don’t have jurors who are willing to follow it,” said Schwartzbach, best known for winning Blake’s acquittal in 2005 in a murder case that attracted often breathless media coverage.
But Janet E. Johnson, a prominent defense lawyer based in Florida, said a jury trial for Carter also could have backfired.
“A jury might have been more swayed by how vicious some of those texts were,” Johnson said, who has closely followed Carter’s case.
On the flip side, some jurors may have empathized with “a beautiful young girl” whose life could be “salvageable” if she sought help, Johnson said.
As for Moniz, he’ll render his verdict amid the backdrop of widespread loathing of Carter. Judges, Johnson said, can feel the brunt of public scorn when their decisions are viewed as too lenient for defendants.
She cited the outcry over the sentence last year for Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer who received a six-month jail term for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The presiding judge, Aaron Persky, stepped away from hearing criminal cases amid mounting criticism and still faces a public recall effort in California.
However, while public scrutiny can be difficult, judges are also leery of having their rulings reversed on appeal, Johnson said. Moniz, if he thinks a conviction will not be upheld, “may decide the [government’s] legal theory is not valid.”
That theory, prosecutors say, is buttressed by reams of text messages that Carter sent Roy not only urging him to commit suicide but chiding him when he wavered.
Johnson said that in researching the Carter case, she could find no trials in Massachusetts and hardly any nationwide that involved a theory of manslaughter based on a defendant’s words.
One example, she said, was a Minnesota case where a defendant posing as a depressed woman online urged people to kill themselves in a mental health forum. He was charged and convicted in two deaths under the state’s assisted suicide ban. The conviction was struck down on appeal, and the defendant was retried and convicted under a new, narrower statute, Johnson said.
Massachusetts has no law banning assisted suicide, and Johnson said it appears prosecutors are trying Carter for that offense, based on her texts.
“She did sort of walk him through how to do it,” Johnson said. “She kind of assisted him in killing himself, knowing his suicidal ideation.”
Many of Carter’s texts to Roy -- “I thought you really wanted to die. But apparently you don’t. I feel played and stupid,” or “you have to do something quick that will end without having to worry about the pain.” -- read like a ruthless teenager targeting a vulnerable friend.
But her lawyers skillfully highlighted other texts suggesting Carter tried to help Roy, Johnson said.
Regarding the state’s case, Johnson said, “It really is a novel theory.”
Carter faces a maximum prison term of 20 years if convicted.