PLAINVILLE — In a unanimous landmark decision, the state’s highest court Wednesday upheld the manslaughter conviction of local resident Michelle Carter — finding there was ample evidence that she coerced her boyfriend to commit suicide in a series of mean-spirited texts and phone calls.
The state Supreme Judicial Court said there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Carter was guilty and that other legal issues her lawyers raised on her appeal, including her protected free speech claim under the First Amendment, lacked merit.
“The evidence against the defendant proved that, by her wanton or reckless conduct, she caused the victim’s death by suicide,” said Justice Scott Kafker, writing for the court in a 33-page ruling.
Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in June 2017 by Judge Lawrence Moniz after a jury-waived trial in Taunton Juvenile Court. She was charged in the July 2014 death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III of Mattapoisett. Carter, now 22, was 17 at the time.
After Carter sent a series of shocking texts and phone calls pressing him to go forward with his plans to kill himself, Roy parked his pickup truck in a Fairhaven parking lot and died of breathing toxic carbon monoxide fumes from a gas-powered water pump he placed in the vehicle.
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn released a statement saying he was pleased with the SJC’s ruling.
“This case is a tragedy for all of the people impacted by this case. However, as the court found in two separate decisions, her conduct was wanton and reckless, and caused the death of Conrad Roy. This was clearly established during the trial through the voluminous text messages sent between several parties in this case,” Quinn said.
After she was convicted, Carter was ordered to serve 15 months of a 2 1/2-year jail term but has been free pending her appeal.
Prosecutors will file paperwork “in the coming days” asking the juvenile court to send Carter to jail, according to Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
When reached for comment, one of Carter’s lawyers, Joseph Cataldo of Franklin, said his client is weighing options for further appellate review in either the federal district court or a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I respectfully but completely disagree with today’s decision. Therefore, we’ll be weighing all our legal options including further appellate review,” Cataldo said.
“There’s a lot in there that I disagree with. There are a lot of legal issues that were raised that are ripe for further appellate review,” he said.
Her lawyers argued that Carter was not responsible for Roy’s death and noted that he previously made attempts to kill himself. They also argued that her text messages were protected free speech under the First Amendment.
But the SJC agreed with Moniz’s analysis of the evidence, saying that Carter was involved in the planning for Roy’s suicide. The court said she was aware of the “toxic environment” created by carbon monoxide gas in the truck but told him in a phone call to get back inside when Roy had second thoughts.
Although Carter’s lawyers said the only evidence of what she said in the call was a long, rambling text to a friend two months later, the court cited texts to friends that night which showed Carter knew Roy had died and that she could hear the water pump.
The court said that the pair had an intimate relationship through texts and phone calls and that Carter was aware of Roy’s fragile mental state at the time he committed suicide. They agreed that she overpowered his will and caused his death by telling him to get back in the truck instead of calling for help.
“And then after she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him. She did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Kafker wrote.
Addressing the free speech argument, he said, “The only verbal conduct punished as involuntary manslaughter has been wanton or reckless pressuring of a vulnerable person to commit suicide, overpowering their will to live and resulting in that person’s death.”
Kafker added, “We are therefore not punishing words alone, as the defendant claims, but reckless or wanton words causing death. The speech at issue is thus integral to a course of criminal conduct and thus does not raise any constitutional problem.”
The court also ruled Carter could be convicted under the youthful offender law and that Moniz did not abuse his discretion to not admit expert testimony from a forensic psychologist hired by the defense.