Lawyers for Michelle Carter, who was sentenced to jail time last summer for pressuring a friend into committing suicide, have appealed her case to the state’s highest court, arguing that it will set precedent for who can be convicted for involuntary manslaughter.
Carter was sentenced to 15 months in jail following a juvenile court trial that focused on the text messages exchanged by Carter, who was 17 at the time, and 18-year-old Conrad Roy III in the days before Roy’s death in July 2014. In the text messages, she urged Roy to kill himself.
Her legal team argued in an application for direct appellate review filed last month that Carter was improperly convicted of a form of involuntary manslaughter for which she wasn’t indicted.
“Direct appellate review is appropriate in this matter because ... this appeal presents novel questions of constitutional and criminal law. It will set precedent for who may be prosecuted for encouraging suicide with words alone,” her legal team argued in a Feb. 5 filing with the state Supreme Judicial Court, which was first reported on Friday by the Boston Herald.
In July 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court found that Carter had to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter and that a Bristol County grand jury had probable cause to indict the Plainville woman. It was first time the court had ruled that an involuntary manslaughter indictment could stand on “the basis of words alone.”
The appeal also argues that the evidence produced at trial was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Carter was “engaged in wanton or reckless conduct” or was liable for any failure to act to prevent Roy’s death.
Carter ordered Roy back into a truck that was filling with carbon monoxide, and she listened while Roy choked on the fumes. She was about 30 miles from Roy.
Carter, whose attorneys argued for probation, was allowed to remain free after her sentencing. Her lawyers last month wrote that the grand jury indicted her for engaging in “wanton and reckless conduct,” but the trial judge found her guilty on a “wanton and reckless failure to act.”
“Although the grand jury found probable cause that Carter’s conduct caused Roy’s death (i.e., she forced him into the truck), the trial judge only found proof beyond a reasonable doubt that she failed to take any action to stop his suicide (i.e., she did not call for help),” her lawyers wrote.
But a Bristol county prosecutor countered in her Feb. 14 response that the trial judge found Carter guilty on both theories of involuntary manslaughter. “While he discussed the ‘failure to act’ theory at some length, he also found that ‘instructing Mr. Roy to get back in his truck constituted wanton and reckless conduct by Ms. Carter,’ ” wrote Shoshana E. Stern, a Bristol assistant district attorney, in court papers.
Carter’s attorneys also argued that her involuntary manslaughter conviction based on words alone penalizes free speech and invites arbitrary enforcement.
“Carter is the first defendant to have been convicted of killing a person who took his own life, even though she neither provided the fatal means nor was present when the suicide occurred. Nothing in Massachusetts law made clear to 17-year-old Carter, or anyone else, that such circumstances could constitute involuntary manslaughter,” Carter’s attorneys wrote.
Carter’s attorneys include Daniel N. Marx, who is representing a group of plaintiffs who said they were wrongly convicted based on evidence tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan; Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge; and William W. Fick, one of the attorneys who represented Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.