Can Someone Be Held Responsible for Another Persons' Suicide?: Review of HBO Documentary "I love you, now die."

Reid Law 2019 Summer Interns Adrianna Bayles and Sierra Bowens review the HBO Documentary “I love you, now die.” They present both sides of the legal arguments for how Michelle Carter could be held responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide.

Argument For Michelle Carter’s Prosecution (by Adrianna Bayles):

 More than four years after the death of Conrad Roy III (18), Michelle Carter (17), Roy’s former girlfriend, has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Many people are wondering how an individual could be held responsible for someone else’s suicide. During Roy’s life he encountered physical abuse from his father and he also suffered from a long-term battle with social anxiety and depression, which lead to multiple suicide attempts. However, that was not a factor in the final verdict, according to Judge Lawerence Moniz who presides over the case of the Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter.

 During the trial, Judge Moniz states that Roy had tried to commit suicide twice in 2012, but had stopped and sought help each time. Therefore, when he exited the truck on the night of his death (July 12th, 2014), it was not out of the ordinary. Judge Lawerence Moniz goes on to say that, “he breaks that chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle he takes himself out of the toxic environment that it has become,” "This completely consistent with his previous attempts at suicide."  Prior to Roy getting out of the truck, he had not broken the chain of causation because he drove to the Kmart, fixed the generator, and locked himself in the carbon monoxide filled vehicle.

 The chain of causation is “the causal connection between an original cause and its subsequent effects, especially as a basis for criminal or civil liability.” Roy exits the vehicle and Michelle Carter tells him to “get back in the truck”, well knowing of all of the feelings that he has exchanged with her, his ambiguities, his fears, his concerns," Moniz said. When Carter tells him to get back in the truck, she becomes guilty of wanton and reckless conduct. Wanton and reckless conduct occurs when a defendant is extremely careless and fails to take necessary safety precautions knowing that injury will result from the act done.

 Carter had also known that it would take about 15 minutes for the carbon monoxide to kill Roy and she insisted that he get back in the truck anyway. She knew that he had gotten back in the truck and she failed to call the police, his parents, or anyone else that could have saved his life. Since he had previously exhibited this behavior of wanting to take his own life, but felt worried, scared, and anxious when he was in that situation, Carter knew that this was normal for him, but she refused to tell him to “get out of the truck”.

 When Dr. Peter Breggin testified on Michelle Carter’s behalf (defense), he argues that” SSRI antidepressants like Prozac can have severe adverse effects on the developing brain.”, which caused her to misjudge situations. Although this is true, Carter’s antidepressants were not affecting her involvement in school activities or her academic success, therefore she knew right from wrong when she failed to instruct Carter to get out of the toxic vehicle. Breggin claims that Carter was “involuntary intoxicated”, during the time period of June 29th and July 2nd, 2014, because of her switch from the antidepressant drug Prozac to Celaxa in April 2014.

 On the other hand, district attorney assistant Katie Rayburn (prosecution), provided the court with evidence such as text messages and witness testimonials that proved Carter craved attention and sent mixed messages to her friends about what was really going on in her life. For instance, Rayburn said Carter sent simultaneous messages of distress to a friend named Lisa and innocuous messages to boy she liked named Luke. The text message from Carter to Lisa states "completely lost control tonight and I'm really disappointed in myself I thought I was getting better." Moments later, she texted Luke to say: "I'm bored as hell. You? Breggin had no proof from Carter’s therapist that she showed any symptoms of involuntary intoxication prior to the death of  Roy. During her routine medical check-ups her supposed, “involuntary intoxication” symptoms, never appeared. Therefore, Judge Moniz ruled that the evidence presented in this case was not credible.

 Michelle Carter’s action of sending dangerous text messages constitutes wanton and reckless conduct because she had knowledge of the existing circumstances and conditions of the toxic vehicle, as well as the potential death or injury to Roy when she instructed him to “get back in the truck” on the night of his untimely death.

Argument Against Prosecution (by Sierra Bowens):

On July 13, 2014, Conrad Roy III died by suicide. Official records state that Roy’s death was caused by “acute carbon monoxide intoxication.” This case is unique in that Roy’s girlfriend at the time, Michelle Carter, was found to be heavily involved in coercing him to follow through with taking his life. Thousands of texts between the two teenagers show that Carter pushed, guided, and aided Roy’s suicide. Carter was indicted on February 4, 2015 on an involuntary manslaughter charge. She was found to have exhibited “wanton and reckless” conduct. Carter was ultimately found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year term with 15 months served and 5 years’ probation; the two-and-a-half year sentence plus the probation was suspended. This case has brought up the question of if an individual can be held legally responsible for another’s death by suicide simply through texts. Below are a few reasons why Michelle is not legally responsible for Conrad Roy’s death.

 Michelle Carter suffered from mental illness as well. Carter had a severe eating disorder, isolation issues, an issue with cutting, and suffered from depression. According to psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin, Carter was on an antidepressant called Celexa in 2014 (Roy was also on this medication at age 17). Dr. Breggin also stated that “the black box warning on the medication ‘specifically says that there is an increased risk of suicide in people age 24 and younger. It describes the studies from which this was determined.’” This medication may have altered Carter’s thinking and impulses as well. As for Roy, Breggin explained the adolescent brain and how it is affected by medication and mental issues. Breggin stated that Carter was a “healer,” while Roy had a dream of the couple being “like Romeo and Juliet at the end.” If Roy told Carter this, Carter may have thought they were both going to follow through with the act at some point in time, gaining them an experience in heaven together.

 Michelle Carter was a juvenile at the time of Conrad Roy’s death. In July of 2014, Carter was still a minor - only 17 years old. An underaged brain coupled with the medication Carter was taking could have impacted her decisions and thinking.

 Conrad Roy had suffered mentally for years beforehand. Roy had suffered from social anxiety and depression long before he met Carter. He also endured physical abuse from his father and became downcast after his parents divorced. July 2014 was not his first suicide attempt. He had a history of attempts and visits to doctors and psychiatrists. Roy first attempted suicide in October of 2012 and continued over the course of 2 years. Carter discouraged him from committing suicide and finally (in 2014) encouraged him to get help.

 There was no physical coercion on Carter’s part. All actions were Conrad Roy’s. Carter was never present and never physically assisted in Roy’s death. The decision to go to the location (Kmart parking lot), return to the truck after exiting, and commit the act were ultimately up to Conrad Roy. Roy “exercised the ultimate freedom of expression” by taking his own life. In fact, Carter and Roy had only been around one another physically once or twice after their initial encounter.

 Carter’s participation was morally wrong - not legally wrong. Many are making decisions based on emotions versus law, and this leads to the belief that what Carter did was a legal offense. Carter’s defense never denied her involvement, and even called it “reprehensible,” but stated that her actions were not criminal.

 This introduces the debate on assisted suicide. Many states have laws on “assisted suicide” and involuntary manslaughter. There is a debate on how far one can go before the individual is held liable for another’s death by suicide. It varies greatly (depending on the state) on how this issue is handled. As of March 2018, “forty-four states explicitly prohibited facilitated suicide in their statutes; three states (including Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia prohibited facilitated suicide through common law.Commonwealth v. Carter and Legal Interpretations of Facilitated Suicide also stated this:

“Notably, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia do not have statutes explicitly prohibiting any form of facilitated suicide. Therefore, when faced with a case of facilitated suicide, these states have to pursue convictions under other sections of the criminal code, such as negligent homicide/manslaughter laws.”

 Unfortunately, this does not change anything. This is a tragic and unfortunate story, and there is no way to bring Conrad Roy back. Carter will serve her sentence and should be released before her 24th birthday. As of July 2019, Carter (and her lawyers) have petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case based upon the First and Fifth Amendments.