Massachusetts High Court Upholds Text-Suicide Conviction, But Doesn’t Rule on Assisted Suicide

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The highest court in Massachusetts has upheld the conviction for involuntary manslaughter of a teen-age girl who repeatedly urged her boyfriend to kill himself, saying the commonwealth has a “compelling interest in preserving life.”

But the court said it was not ruling on assisted suicide in cases where there is a terminally ill patient, which is currently illegal in Massachusetts but is the subject of a court challenge and a bill in the state Legislature seeking to make it legal.

“Only the wanton or reckless pressuring of a person to commit suicide that overpowers that person’s will to live has been proscribed. This restriction is necessary to further the Commonwealth’s compelling interest in preserving life,” wrote Justice Scott Kafker for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Michelle Carter, then 17, of Plainville, exchanged a series of text messages four and a half years ago with Conrad Roy, then 18, encouraging him to follow through on his suicidal impulses.

One night in July 2014 Roy intentionally generated carbon monoxide in his truck while in a parking lot in Fairhaven. When he got out of his truck to get fresh air, Carter ordered him back in. He did, and he died.

In June 2017 a district court judge found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 15 months in prison. She has remained free while her case was on appeal.

The high court on Wednesday found that the facts of the case support the judge’s verdict.

“The judge could have properly found, based on this evidence, that the vulnerable, confused, mentally ill, eighteen year old victim had managed to save himself once again in the midst of his latest suicide attempt, removing himself from the truck as it filled with carbon monoxide. But then in this weakened state he was badgered back into the gas-infused truck by the defendant, his girlfriend and closest, if not only, confidant in this suicidal planning, the person who had been constantly pressuring him to complete their often discussed plan, fulfill his promise to her, and finally commit suicide,” Kafker wrote in the decision Wednesday, February 6.

At trial the judge said that the last cell phone conversation between Carter and Roy as he was in the Kmart parking lot in Fairhaven prompted him to find her guilty, but that the text messages leading up to it provided valuable context.

Roy, who suffered from depression, had previously made several suicide attempts but had always backed out.

A text message exchange quoted by the Supreme Judicial Court shows Roy, who split time between his mother’s house in Fairhaven and his father’s house in Mattapoisett, thinking about suicide but hesitant because he was worried about the effect it would have on his family and on anyone who might find his body after he died.

The text messages are quoted verbatim below. The abbreviation “idk” stands for “I don’t know.”

Victim:  “I have a bad feeling tht this is going to create a lot of depression between my parents/sisters”

Defendant:  “I think your parents know you’re in a really bad place.  Im not saying they want you to do it, but I honestly feel like they can except it.  They know there’s nothing they can do, they’ve tried helping, everyone’s tried.  But there’s a point that comes where there isn’t anything anyone can do to save you, not even yourself, and you’ve hit that point and I think your parents know you’ve hit that point.  You said you’re mom saw a suicide thing on your computer and she didn’t say anything.  I think she knows it’s on your mind, and she’s prepared for it”

Defendant:  “Everyone will be sad for a while, but they will get over it and move on.  They won’t be in depression I won’t let that happen.  They know how sad you are and they know that you’re doing this to be happy, and I think they will understand and accept it.  They’ll always carry u in their hearts”

Victim:  “i don’t want anyone hurt in the process though”

Victim:  “I meant when they open the door, all the carbon monoxide is gonna come out they can’t see it or smell it. whoever opens the door”

Defendant:  “They will see the generator and know that you died of CO. . . .”

Victim: “Idk I’m freaking out again”

Defendant:  “I thought you wanted to do this.  The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!  You can’t keep living this way.  You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.  You can’t keep doing this every day”

Victim:  “I do want to. but like I’m freaking for my family.  I guess”

Victim:  “idkkk”

The court rejected arguments that Carter may have acted as a “reasonable juvenile,” that legally she couldn’t be held liable for Roy’s death since she was 30 miles away at the time it occurred, and that Carter’s communications with Roy are protected by the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment of the federal constitution.

The case is called Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, or “Carter II.” (A previous appeal in the case also resulted in a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, known as “Carter I”.)

Carter could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on federal grounds.

A lawyer for Carter could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting free speech, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

[Editor’s Note:  This story will be updated or superseded as additional facts and comments become available.]

Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which opposes making assisted suicide legal, called the Carter case “very sad,” adding:  “We as a society should be able to help people so they will not resort to killing themselves.”

“In this case, Michelle egged on the young man, which encouraged him to commit suicide. One would hope she was thinking only about affirming him, not about the consequences,” Fox said in an email message to New Boston Post.

She noted that a bill that would make physician-assisted suicide legal in Massachusetts has been filed in the state Legislature. The bill, HD. 171, has 58 sponsors in the 200-member legislature.

Supporters of the bill say it would provide terminally ill patients with a dignified way to end their life. But Fox said the Carter case decision highlights the devastation of suicide.

“One would hope this decision helps to show society’s abhorrence of suicide and of anyone helping or encouraging another to commit suicide,” Fox said. “This should make legislators think twice before voting for a bill which would encourage doctors to help people kill themselves.”