PLAINVILLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts blasted the state’s highest court Wednesday for upholding the manslaughter conviction of Michelle Carter, saying the ruling will “diminish the speech rights of everyone” in the state.
In handing down its unanimous decision, the state Supreme Judicial Court found there was ample evidence to prove Carter acted with wanton and reckless conduct in the suicide of her boyfriend Conrad Roy III in July 2014. And the court rejected her claims she was protected under the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Roy killed himself by breathing in lethal carbon monoxide fumes from a gasoline-powered water pump he had in his pickup truck. Before his death, Carter, then 17, sent the 18-year-old Roy a series of shocking texts and phone calls urging him to carry out his plans to commit suicide.
“Conrad Roy’s suicide is indisputably tragic. But, by upholding Michelle Carter’s conviction, the Supreme Judicial Court has handed prosecutors broad, undefined powers that diminish the speech rights of everyone in Massachusetts,” Matt Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
“The Court’s decision tells prosecutors that they can bring charges against individuals based on arbitrary and subjective determinations of what speech is noble and what speech is criminal,” Segal said.
“This prosecutorial power will chill important and loving end-of-life discussions between family members, and could lead to erroneous convictions of children who engage in reckless, juvenile conversations with friends,” he said.
The court’s assurance that its opinion will not broadly criminalize other speech “does little to change this inevitable outcome,” Segal added.
In its decision, the court said manslaughter is directed at a course of conduct, rather than speech. The court noted the U.S. Supreme Court held that “speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute” is not protected by the First Amendment.
The court differentiated Carter’s case from one involving end-of-life discussions between a doctor, family member or friend, or a terminally ill adult confronting difficult personal choices.
Referring to its earlier decision in the case, the court said, “These situations are easily distinguishable from the present case.”
They said evidence in the Carter case suggested “a systematic campaign of coercion” in which she “targeted the equivocating young victim’s insecurities and acted to subvert his willpower in favor of her own.”