Michelle Carter texted her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, hundreds of times in the lead up to his suicide.
The highly disturbing messages repeatedly urged Roy to just “do it”, calling him a coward and saying that he “always seem[s] to have an excuse” for not killing himself.
But on the 13th of July 2014, Roy did go through with it. His body was found inside his truck at a K-Mart car park in Massachusetts. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Investigators later recovered the disturbing text messages, even though Roy had deleted them before killing himself. The messages are the primary basis for manslaughter charges against Carter.
Perhaps even more upsetting is evidence which suggests that Roy got out of his truck during the event and called Carter, who told him to “get back in.”
Carter’s text messages encouraged Roy to kill himself by saying things like “Tonight is the night. It’s now or never.” Other messages included:
“If you do it right and listen to what that guy said in the article, it will 100 percent work. It’s not that hard to mess up.”
“They know how sad you are, and they know that you are doing this to be happy and I think they will understand and accept it. They will always carry you in their hearts.”
“You are my beautiful guardian angel forever and ever. I’ll always smile up at you knowing that you aren’t far away.”
The prosecution is alleging that the messages amount to involuntary manslaughter – that Carter took advantage of a mentally ill young man in order to gain sympathy and attention from her peers and family after he died.
Carter’s defence attorney Joseph Cataldo, on the other hand, argues that his client’s freedom of speech is protected by the first amendment to the US Constitution. He asserts that people should be responsible for their own actions, and that convicting his client will set a dangerous precedent whereby people could potentially be criminally responsible for off-the-cuff remarks like “Go kill yourself”.
Mr Cataldo concedes that the the texts are disturbing, stating “If you find it repugnant that’s fine.” However, he points out that his client did not supply Roy with any equipment and was not even present during the suicide – meaning that she cannot possibly be criminally responsible for Roy’s death.
But prosecutors are relying upon a 1961 case called Ilario Persampieri v. Commonwealth to support its position. That case involved a man, Mr Ilario, who told his wife that he was filing for divorce, before teaching her how to shoot a shotgun with her feet. Mr Illario loaded the gun before handing it to his wife with the safety off, and she attempted to pull the trigger. When she was unable to do so, he suggested that she take off one of her shoes – which she did. This caused the gun to accidentally fire, and she died from her wounds a few days later.
Mr Ilario was ultimately found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Although the facts in Ilario are very different to those at present, the prosecution will use the precedent to argue that Carter’s relentless campaign of encouragement is enough to render her legally responsible for Roy’s death.
The Law in Australia
Unlike Massachusetts, it is a crime in Australia to assist someone to commit suicide.
In New South Wales, “aiding or abetting” a suicide is an offence under s 31C(1) of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which comes with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
To be found guilty, a person will normally need to have been present at some stage and have an intention to participate; see Giorgianni v The Queen (1985) 156 CLR 473).
Of greater relevance present purposes, section 31C(2) makes it a crime to “incite or counsel” someone else to commit suicide. The offence carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.
It is highly likely that Ms Carter’s alleged actions would be captured by this section, and that she would be found guilty if the prosecution were able to prove its allegations.