TAUNTON, Mass. (CN) – In a manslaughter-by-texting case, the Massachusetts woman who convinced her suicidal boyfriend to kill himself was sentenced Thursday to two and a half years in prison, setting what some say is a dangerous precedent for how the First Amendment is applied to modern communication.
Michelle Carter’s sentence includes 15 months of incarceration followed by probation until Aug. 1, 2022.
Immediately following the sentence, however, the judge agreed to stay Carter’s prison time until the defense exhausts state appeals. Her probation begins immediately.
The terms of her probation do not allow her to profit from her crime, meaning she cannot participate in interviews or movies about her case.
Carter’s attorney, Joseph Cataldo, told reporters after the sentencing that Carter will be vindicated because she did not break any law when she encouraged her boyfriend to take his own life. Cataldo reiterated that everything Carter said was considered free speech and protected by the First Amendment.
Prosecutor Katie Rayburn, who called Carter’s actions “a deliberate well-thought out campaign that caused the death of Conrad Roy,” also made a brief statement, saying the stay was disappointing.
Before handing downing the sentence, Bristol County Judge Lawrence Moniz said he was not swayed by Carter’s age at the time of the incident, which was just three weeks shy of 18, among other factors in making his decision.
“I have not found that Carter’s age, maturity or mental illness had any impact on her actions,” he said. Nevertheless, he did acknowledge that Carter is “still a child before the court.”
Judge Moniz went on to say one of the statements that affected his decision the most was one read by Rayburn on behalf of Lynn Roy, the mother of the Conrad Roy III, the man who killed himself at Carter’s insistence.
“I pray a law will come forth so that another mother does not have to endure what I have,” Judge Moniz said, repeating the mother’s wishes.
Before Judge Moniz announced Carter’s sentence, he first listened to the Roy’s father and teenage sister, both of whom took to the witness stand.
Sunlight filtered into the third-floor courtroom through a wall of windows as Roy’s father, Conrad Roy Jr., began: “I cannot begin to describe the despair I feel over the loss of my son.”
His dark hair contrasted against a light blue striped button down shirt tucked into khakis.
“My son was my best friend,” he continued “The last words I said to my son were, ‘I love you.’ I miss him every moment of every day.”
Camden Roy, the teenage sister of the deceased, also approached the witness stand before the young blonde girls in short shorts led by middle-age women in summer dresses that filled the pews. She wore a black and white striped long-sleeved dress and her long light brown hair was brushed away from her face as she read her statement in a barely audible voice.
She talked about how her brother taught her to throw footballs and baseballs, and while she was describing how much would miss him, she began to cry, her words lost in gasps of breaths.
In his motion to stay the sentencing, Cataldo described the ordeal as “an unusual set of circumstances between these two individuals with mental health problems.” He called Carter a “successful candidate for rehabilitation” and claimed “treatment is appropriate in this case.”
Cataldo also went into Carter’s life since she had been indicted, saying she was taking online classes and wants to get involved in real estate. He said she does regret what happened and sent a letter to probation officials accepting responsibility for her actions.
He made a final plea to Judge Moniz to remember that Carter was going through significant issues herself during this time, as she had been on anti-depressants and diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Text messages were at the forefront of the controversial decision that found Carter, 20, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for repeatedly urging Roy to kill himself in 2014.
Judge Moniz handed down her involuntary-manslaughter conviction on June 16 after a seven-day bench trial, prompting rebuke by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions,” Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement regarding the verdict that threatens to rewrite the well-known idiom, “Words will never hurt me.”
Court documents detail hundreds of text messages that span over several months, providing prosecution with the evidence they needed of Carter’s wrongdoing.
In July 2014, Carter, then 17, spoke on the phone to Roy, 18, who was 30 miles away and in the midst of executing his plan to commit suicide.
Carter told Roy to not abandon his plan to kill himself after he said he had gotten out of his pickup truck because he could feel the effects of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Roy had set up a combustion engine to fill the cabin of his truck with the toxic fumes.
The phone conversations between Carter and Roy in the moments before his death were not recorded, but instead revealed through text messages Carter later sent to a friend confessing she could have prevented the tragedy.
“Sam, his death is my fault,” Carter texted her friend. “Like, honestly I could have stopped it. I was the one on the phone with him and he got out of the car because he was working and he got scared and I fucken told him to get back in, Sam, because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live that way the way he was living anymore. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t let him.”
Police discovered Roy’s body in his pickup truck in a Fairhaven K-Mart parking lot.
Carter and Roy saw each other less than a handful of times in over two years, but maintained a “discrete” relationship via texting, emails and phone calls, according to the prosecution, who said Roy’s best friend had never heard of Carter.
Roy’s mother, however, did know of Carter and received multiple texts from Carter consoling her after Roy’s death.
“From July to December, Carter text messaged Conrad’s mother, telling her that Conrad loved her and that his death was not her fault,” court documents state. “She never stated that she had been communicating with Conrad the night that he took his life.”
Leading up to Roy’s decision to take his own life, the couple’s exchanges mainly focused on Roy’s desire and hesitation to die.
Carter initially suggested Roy seek help, but eventually Carter grew frustrated with Roy’s threats to kill himself, and she began to antagonize him and encourage him to go through with it.
Carter helped Roy choose the method he would use and the location.
When Roy discovered his truck’s engine would not produce enough carbon monoxide to work, she wrote to him, “Well, there is more ways to make CO. Google ways to make it.”
She also gave advice on what to do if he needed alternative methods, texting: “Well I would do the CO. That honestly is the best way and I know it’s hard to find a tank so if you could use another car or something, then do that. But next I’d try the bag or hanging. Hanging is painless and takes like a second if you do it right.”
The morning of Roy’s death, Carter wrote to him, “You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”
Later that day, Roy texted Carter saying he was “determined” to go through with his plan after Carter asked him several times to promise that he would finally kill himself that day.
Carter texted him, “Go in your truck and drive in a parking lot somewhere, to a park or something. Do it like early. Do it now, like early.”
Despite Roy expressing doubt and hesitation until the end, Carter continued pushing him, prosecutors showed.
First he said he would do it after walking his dog, but then said he wanted to take his sisters out for ice cream. Finally, he admitted to “procrastinating.”
“You can do this,” Carter said in her last text to him.
Carter was tried as a youthful offender in Taunton Juvenile Court, where she waived her right to a trial by jury.
Judge Moniz ruled on June 16 that Carter’s suggestions for Roy to “get back in” his car after he had already gotten out is what caused Roy’s suicide, thus justifying the manslaughter charge.
In a March 2016 brief submitted to the court, the defense claimed that charging Carter with manslaughter “was a transparent effort calculated to circumvent the fact that the legislature has not criminalized words that encourage suicide,” and “any statements made or texts sent encouraging Roy to continue his efforts to take his own life did not as a matter of law amount to the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm.”
Though the ACLU’s Segal called Roy’s death tragic, he said “it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our Constitution.”
“There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide,” Segal added. “Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words.”
Segal also warned of the conviction’s potential for far-reaching consequences.
“If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the commonwealth,” Segal said.
Carter’s sentencing comes two weeks after CNN reported Florida police decided to not press charges against five teens who filmed and laughed at a man while he drowned in a nearby pond, as there is no state law that requires a person to intervene in a situation where another is in distress.