Texting Too Far

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By Ari Robbins

On Friday, June 16th, a Massachusetts Juvenile Court Judge found twenty-year old Michelle Carter guilty of the involuntary manslaughter of Conrad Roy III. Carter was found guilty of recklessly causing Roy III’s death. However, when eighteen-year old Roy III took his own life in 2014, he was alone. Roy closed himself in his truck in a Walmart parking lot and allowed a generator to fill his truck cab with carbon monoxide until he died. When he killed himself, Roy hadn’t spoken to Carter in person for over a year. The two maintained a close relationship entirely through text and e-mail.

Over the course of their relationship, Roy expressed to Carter many times that he planned to kill himself. After hearing of Roy’s plans, Carter encouraged him to follow through. Carter started responding to Roy’s suicide threats by saying things like: “If this is the only way you think you’re gonna be happy, heaven will welcome you with open arms.”

On the day Roy took his own life, Carter was texting him, encouraging him to follow through with his suicide plans. At one point Roy got out of his truck, but Carter convinced him to continue, telling him to “get back in.” Roy even called Carter who then stayed on the phone with him as the generator fumes filled his truck cabin.

Last summer, Carter became the first person in Massachusetts indicted on “the basis of words alone.” Carter’s lawyer argued that her texts did not cause Roy to kill himself and that they were free speech protected by the First Amendment. Ultimately, the state Supreme Judicial Court found probable cause to indict Carter deciding she was “personally aware that her conduct was both reprehensible and punishable” and that through texting, calling and e-mailing, Carter imposed a “virtual presence at the time of the suicide.”

In Massachusetts, this is the first time a person has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on coaxing via text message. However, the indictment from the State Supreme Judicial Court demonstrates how the law has left room for unanticipated methods of manslaughter.

Following the indictment, Judge Moniz heard the case and ultimately found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter. In response to the verdict, Mathew Segal, a lawyer with the ACLU raised concerns that Carter was convicted for her texts alone: “Saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words. . .That is a drastic expansion of criminal law in Massachusetts.” However, Judge Moniz explained that this was not a unique case at all, comparing Carters behavior to an inmate at the Hampshire Jail in 1816 who “was charged with causing the murder of the man in the next cell” by encouraging the man to commit suicide. Judge Moniz concluded that regardless of the mode of communication, Carter “instructed him to get back in the truck which she ha[d] reason to know is becoming a toxic environment to human life.”

Judge Moniz had to look back 200 years to find a case analogous to the facts in Carter, but with the increased sophistication of smartphones this will likely not be the only case where a text message conversation is used as a pivotal peace of evidence. Smart phones can now save text conversations going back years and texting allows individuals to carry out a relationship without ever talking in person. Courts will now be able to have detailed records of what exactly was said by each person rather than relying on word of mouth. As technology continues to improve, courts will need to decide how best to deal with the digital record that is created.

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