PLAINVILLE — Lawyers for Michelle Carter are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of her manslaughter conviction, noting that since their petition was filed in July a state prosecutor has filed charges in a similar texting-suicide case.
The lawyers, in a filing last week, argued that the state Supreme Judicial Court’s upholding of Carter’s conviction conflicted with recent decisions by supreme courts in three other states, and gave prosecutors “no meaningful guidance for future suicide cases to distinguish involuntary manslaughter from intimate end-of-life discussions.”
The issues, the lawyers argued, are not hypothetical or constrained to the unique facts in Carter’s case.
“To the contrary, the toxic combination of mental illness, adolescent psychology and social media will likely lead to more tragic suicides,” they argued in the 13-page filing.
They specifically referenced news stories about a former Boston College student charged in November in the texting-suicide of her boyfriend on the day of his graduation from BC.
The lawyers also said there is nothing in the ruling in Carter’s case to prevent a prosecutor who believes that all suicide and assisted suicide is “morally blameworthy” from charging persons who encourage terminally ill relatives to end terrible suffering by committing suicide.
Carter, 23, is serving a 15-month jail sentence for encouraging the suicide of a friend, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III, in July 2014 in Fairhaven. Carter was 17 and at her home in Plainville at the time. Although they met only a few times, the two shared an intimate relationship via texts and both struggled with mental health issues.
Roy, of Mattapoisett, killed himself by breathing toxic fumes from a gas-powered water pump he placed in his pickup truck. A judge found that he and Carter communicated by text and during two phone calls that night, including one call in which Carter told Roy to get back in the truck when he apparently had second thoughts with taking his life.
Carter’s lawyers, Joseph Cataldo of Franklin and Daniel Marx of Boston, argued that Carter’s conviction for “words alone” was unprecedented and was contrary to her First Amendment free speech protections. They want the Supreme Court to vacate her manslaughter conviction.
In a filing last month, the state Attorney General’s office urged the court to reject Carter’s petition. The attorney general argued that Carter had no First Amendment protection because her speech was “integral to criminal conduct.” The attorney general also argued that the state SJC’s ruling did not conflict with decisions in other states.
In petitions like Carter’s before the U.S. Supreme Court, called a certiorari, the justices are asked to settle conflicting rulings concerning federal constitutional issues by supreme courts in various states.
While the state SJC upheld Carter’s conviction, her lawyers argued, supreme courts in Minnesota, North Carolina and Illinois vacated the convictions of defendants for encouraging suicides and for cyberstalking.
At issue is the interpretation of a 1949 U.S. Supreme Court case in which “speech integral to criminal conduct” was found to not be protected by the First Amendment. Carters lawyers also argued how her words could constitute “criminal conduct” when she did not do anything other than text and talk on the phone to Roy.
Carter’s lawyers argued that a split among courts is not necessarily required for the Supreme Court to review her case because the Massachusetts SJC “misapplied” federal constitutional law.
Her lawyers also faulted the SJC’s finding of her “virtual presence” in Roy’s suicide based on Carter’s extensive use of texting and social media, arguing the SJC “invented that broad and ill-defined concept of culpability” to affirm her conviction.
The juvenile court judge who convicted Carter, citing phone records and testimony, found she was on the phone with Roy when he died.
The U.S. Supreme Court has a conference scheduled in Carter’s case next month.