The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the case of Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts woman convicted of encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself over phone calls and text messages.
Last July, Carter, now 23, appealed to the Supreme Court to review her case and vacate her conviction, which, her lawyers argued, was “unprecedented” and violated her First Amendment right to free speech and her Fifth Amendment right to due process.
“Michelle Carter did not cause Conrad Roy’s tragic death and should not be held criminally responsible for his suicide,” her attorney, Daniel Marx, had said last year.
Massachusetts is the only state to have upheld the conviction of a “physically absent defendant who encouraged another person to commit suicide with words alone,” Carter’s petition said.
Carter is currently serving her 15-month jail sentence and is scheduled to be released in March.
The question at the center of her Supreme Court appeal is whether Carter’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment because it was “integral to criminal conduct.”
Massachusetts’ highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), had refused to overturn Carter’s conviction last February, ruling that her “systematic campaign of coercion” consisted of “speech integral to criminal conduct” which is “long understood to be exempt from First Amendment protections.”
Carter’s lawyers said that the SJC’s ruling conflicted with decisions of other state supreme courts that had refused to apply the same “much-criticized” exception in similar circumstances. They also argued that the SJC had misconstrued and “significantly expanded” on the exception.
In its ruling affirming her conviction, the SJC had said that Carter’s “wanton and reckless conduct” through her “pressuring text messages and phone calls” preyed on the weaknesses, fears, and anxieties of a vulnerable young man who had mental illness, overcame his willpower to live, and coerced him to die by suicide.
Carter’s speech was not integral to criminal conduct, her lawyers argued, because she did not engage in any conduct other “than talking (or texting).” Her conviction “rested entirely on the content of the words that she spoke to Roy,” her petition said.
In February 2012, Carter and Roy began a long-distance relationship, communicating primarily through texts and phone calls. In 2014, Carter, who was 17 at the time, sent Roy a series of text messages over a two-week period exhorting him to kill himself and berating him when he expressed hesitation, prosecutors said during her trial.
“If u don’t do it now, you’re never gonna do it,” Carter wrote in one text to Roy.
“People who commit suicide don’t think this much. They just do it,” she said in another text.
Roy — who had a history of mental illness and had previously tried to kill himself — died by suicide in his truck outside a Kmart in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on July 12, 2014.
Carter was 50 miles away in her Plainville home but spoke to Roy twice over the phone for more than 80 minutes before his death. While there are no records of what the two discussed, prosecutors relied heavily on a text message Carter sent one of her friends months after Roy’s death.
In the message to Samantha Boardman, Carter said, “Sam his death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in.”
“Sam because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldnt have him live the way he was living anymore I couldnt do it I wouldnt let him,” a part of the text said.
The trial judge convicted Carter of involuntary manslaughter, saying she failed to call for help after instructing Roy to get back into his truck despite knowing it was a toxic environment “inconsistent with human life.”
During her trial, prosecutors depicted Carter as an attention-seeking woman who used her young boyfriend as a “pawn in her sick game of life and death.” They said that she wanted to play the role of a “grieving girlfriend to get the sympathy and attention she craves."
Carter’s lawyers argued that she was a troubled teen dealing with her own mental health issues and had been taking antidepressants when Roy died. They said that Roy’s suicide was his own choice and that he was “on the path to take his own life” over many years.
The case drew national attention and was the subject of a recent HBO documentary.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Carter’s lawyers framed “this high-profile” criminal case as an “ideal vehicle” for the Court to address free speech issues and resolve the split among state supreme courts on what speech is not protected by the First Amendment.
In their response to Carter’s petition, the state dismissed the theory that there was any split or conflict in how lower courts had interpreted the exception to the First Amendment’s protections for “speech integral to criminal conduct.”
Carter’s lawyers said that the state refused to acknowledge the national attention the case had received and its implications for the “legal and moral debate about suicide.”
They cited a recent “headline-grabbing” prosecution in Boston that drew comparisons to Carter’s case in which a 21-year-old woman was charged with involuntary manslaughter for sending her boyfriend dozens of coercive and abusive texts messages that allegedly caused his suicide.
“The toxic combination of mental illness, adolescent psychology, and social media will likely lead to more tragic suicides,” Carter’s lawyers said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line.