By Ugur Nedim and Zeb Holmes
A US judge has found that Michelle Carter caused the death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy, by sending him a barrage of text messages urging him to kill himself.
Ms Carter faces up to 20 years in prison after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the July 2014 suicide of Mr Roy, who struggled with depression and took his own life using carbon monoxide from his pick-up truck.
Events leading up to death
The court received evidence of over 1000 Facebook and text messages between the pair over two years.
In the text messages leading up to the 18-year old’s death, then 17-year old Ms Carter belittled her boyfriend for failing to make good on previous assurances that he would commit suicide. She then made her boyfriend promise to follow through on this occasion.
She sent him research on different suicide methods, including hanging and jumping off a high building. She then settled on carbon monoxide poisoning. She directed her boyfriend to do it away from home so that nobody would interrupt him.
“And u can’t break a promise. And just go in a quiet parking lot of something,” Ms Carter wrote.
When Mr Roy replied that he didn’t want to hurt his parents, Ms Carter reassured him that: “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 accept it.”
After Roy’s suicide, Ms Carter played the role of a grieving girlfriend, and her “social status” was advanced at school.
Presenting herself as shattered by her boyfriend’s death, Ms Carter posted on Facebook that she would become an anti-suicide activist and organise a baseball tournament in her late partner’s honour.
Manslaughter in the United States
Under US law, manslaughter is defined as the “unlawful killing of a human being without malice”.
Involuntary manslaughter includes any death that results from another’s unlawful act which does not amount to a felony, or without due caution and circumspection in undertaking a lawful act that might produce death.
Judge Lawrence Moniz focused his ruling on three words Ms Carter communicated to Mr Roy after he climbed out of his truck and said he was scared.
“Get back in,” Carter told Roy, according to court testimony. This led to the finding that:
“Instructing Mr. Roy to get back in the truck constituted wanton and reckless conduct, creating a situation where there’s a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result”.
Difficult to prosecute
United States prosecutors have historically found it difficult to establish the causal link between bullying and suicide, which is necessary to establish manslaughter.
In one case, student Dharun Ravi recorded his roommate having sex with another man, then used the recording to “ruin his [roommate’s] life”. He was prosecuted for manslaughter in 2012 after his roommate committed suicide, but was only convicted of intimidation and invasion of privacy.
In another tragedy, prosecutors decided not to bring manslaughter charges against Lori Drew, a Missouri mother who set up a fake MySpace account to relentlessly bully and belittle a 13-year-old girl, leading to her suicide.
In the current case, the judge found that Ms Carter was “virtually present” at the time of Mr Roy’s death, and that her direct insistence that he get back in the truck and kill himself caused the tragedy.
“the coercive quality of the defendant’s verbal conduct overwhelmed whatever willpower the 18-year-old victim had to cope with his depression”, the judge remarked.
Manslaughter in NSW
Section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) (“the Act”) defines murder as any act or omission with “reckless indifference to human life” or “intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm on another person” which causes death.
Subsection 18(1)(b) states that “Every other punishable homicide shall be taken to be manslaughter.” The offence does not require the prosecution to prove reckless indifference to life or an intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.
Section 24 of the Act prescribes a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment for the offence.
There are at least three broad categories of manslaughter in NSW:
- Manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act,
- Manslaughter by criminal negligence, and
- Manslaughter by excessive self-defence.
Manslaughter by unlawful and dangerous act
This is a form of involuntary manslaughter which requires the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that:
- the defendant killed another person,
- the death was caused by an act of the defendant,
- the defendant intended to commit the act that caused the death,
- the act was unlawful, and
- the act was dangerous.
The alleged ‘dangerous and unlawful act’ must be one that a reasonable person in the position of the defendant would have appreciated as exposing another or others to the risk of serious injury; Wilson v The Queen (1992) 174 CLR 313.
Manslaughter by criminal negligence
This is another form of involuntary manslaughter. To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove that:
- the defendant owed a legal duty of care to the deceased,
- the defendant committed an act or omitted to do an act,
- the act or omission substantially caused or accelerated the death of the deceased,
- the act or omission breached the duty of care owed to the deceased, and
- the act or omission amounted to criminal negligence and deserved criminal punishment for the offence of manslaughter because:
- it fell far short of the standard of care which a reasonable person would have exercised in the circumstances; and
- involved such a high risk that death or really serious bodily harm would follow as a result of it.
In Lavender v The Queen (2005) 222 CLR 67, the High Court found that the degree of negligence must be at least as high as recklessness.
Australian courts have been loath to impose positive obligations on individuals when it comes to assisting other. However, the courts have found that liability for manslaughter may arise in the following situations.
- where the defendant had a legal obligation to care for the deceased – eg was a parent or carer – and failed to do so; Russell  VLR 59.
- where the defendant assumed a duty of care towards a helpless person and secluded them so as to prevent others from rendering assistance; Stone and Dobinson  1 QB 354, Taktak (1988) 14 NSWLR 226.
Manslaughter by excessive self-defence
Section 421 of the Act provides that a person is guilty of manslaughter rather than murder where he or she:
- uses force that involves the infliction of death, and
- the conduct is not a reasonable response in the circumstances as he or she perceives them, but the person believes the conduct is necessary:
- to defend themselves or another person, or
- to prevent or terminate the unlawful deprivation of his or her liberty or the liberty of another
The laws of manslaughter are often seen as a net which captures those whose dangerous acts or omissions cause the death of others, despite a lack of evidence proving an intention to kill or cause serious harm.