A young woman who sent text messages badgering her depressed boyfriend to kill himself was ordered to spend 15 months in prison, but will remain free for the time being while her conviction in a novel Massachusetts manslaughter case is appealed.
Michelle Carter was 17 years old when 18-year-old Conrad Roy III rigged up a generator to his pickup truck and poisoned himself with carbon monoxide in July 2014. Carter had sent numerous text messages telling Roy to "just do it" and was on the cellphone with him during the suicide, at one point ordering him back into the truck when he got cold feet and exited to gasp for air.
Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz on Thursday ordered Carter to spend at least 15 months of a 2½-year sentence incarcerated. But minutes after the sentence was handed down, he stayed the sentence, seeming to acknowledge the uniqueness of the case.
In asking for the sentence to be stayed, Carter's lawyer said there had never been a manslaughter case where words alone were found to be sufficient to have caused somebody's death.
"This is fertile ground and a very important legal issue that needs to be pursued in the appellate court," said the lawyer, Joseph Cataldo.
The sensational trial in June peeled back the veil on the secret social-media life of teenagers. Although there was no jury, the trial was streamed live and drew considerable attention. A virtual lynch mob of online commentators had heaped invective on Carter, calling her a witch who should be locked away for years.
"Kill yourself," one woman heckled as Carter, dressed in red trousers and a paisley-printed blouse, arrived at the courthouse in Taunton, Mass.
Carter did not speak during the sentencing Thursday, and neither did her family, although her father wrote a letter to the court. Her face appeared swollen, her eyes red, and she leaned against one hand, clutching a tissue.
"Michelle was a troubled, vulnerable teenager in an extremely difficult situation and made a tragic mistake," David Carter wrote in the letter, excerpts of which were published in the Boston Herald. He said his daughter believed that Roy was so depressed that he would be better off dead.
"I am 100 percent sure she was only trying to do what in her mind was right for Conrad," the letter continued.
Members of Roy's family, however, demanded the maximum sentence of 20 years. The father of the deceased young man tearfully told the court that the family believed he would not have gone through with the suicide if not for Carter.
"Although he did have some psychological troubles, we all felt he was heading in the right direction," Conrad Roy Jr. told the court. "Michelle Carter exploited my son's weaknesses and used him as a pawn.''
Assistant Dist. Atty. Maryclare Flynn told the judge Thursday that Carter had encouraged Roy's suicide "for her own personal gain and quest for attention" and in order to play a "charade as the grieving girlfriend."
The case has drawn criticism from legal scholars who say it raises free speech issues and doesn't meet the standard of causation, since Carter wasn't physically with Roy when he killed himself. Unlike many other states, Massachusetts does not have a specific law against assisted suicide.
"I think this case is vulnerable on appeal," said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Boston's Northeastern University. "The fact that the judge stayed the sentence shows, I think it is fair to say, that he is dubious about whether the case will withstand appellate scrutiny."
Moniz, who found Carter guilty in June, had focused his ruling on Carter's instructions to "get back in" the truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide. The judge said those words constituted "wanton and reckless conduct" under the manslaughter statute.
Carter and Roy met in Florida in 2012 while on vacation with their families. Although they lived close by, they rarely saw one another, confining their relationship to text messages and telephone calls.
At one point, they discussed both killing themselves in the style of Romeo and Juliet. But their attention shifted to Roy's unhappiness. After initially trying to dissuade him from suicide and urging psychological counseling, Carter began a campaign to get Roy to kill himself.
"You always say you're gonna do it, but you never do," Carter taunted in one of her numerous text messages.
2:55 p.m.: This post has been updated with additional details about the sentencing.
12:18 p.m.: This post has been updated with the sentencing.