News & Current Affairs

By Jane Carey


The strange case of Michelle Carter and her boyfriend’s suicide

In June 2017, a Massachusetts court found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary murder because of texts she sent to her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, encouraging him to kill himself. In 2014 he died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his car. Carter was on the phone to him at the time and when Roy got out of the car, she allegedly ordered him to get back in. Carter was accused of doing this for attention, and to raise her social status at school as the grieving girlfriend.

The case has drawn debate among legal professionals from around the world, and the verdict of manslaughter has both caused controversy and set a number of legal precedents in America. Let’s take a look at the case and see what conclusions we can draw.

Words can kill

One of the most important takeaways from the case was the fact that the judge found there to be a causal relationship between words and someone’s death. The case rested on two years’ worth of messages between Carter and Roy. Carter had sent Roy research on methods to commit suicide and advised him to do it away from home so no one would stop him.

The judge found Carter’s messages and then the coercive power of her verbal directions to him on the phone at the time “overwhelmed whatever willpower the 18-year-old victim had to cope with his depression”. The case has established a causal relationship between words and death.

The case has established a causal relationship between words and death.

Carter’s failure to act when it became clear what Roy’s intentions were had a clear impact on the case. The Judge who gave the verdict, Lawrence Moniz, cited the 1999 case Commonwealth v. Levesque as informing his decision, in which a homeless couple were deemed responsible for the death of six firefighters in a factory. This was because they had failed to inform the police when they saw the factory was on fire.

The case has drawn debate among legal professionals from around the world.

Although this case was in a lower court, it may set a precedent for cases of manslaughter where someone has coerced another into committing suicide. This is highly relevant in Australia in the debate over legal euthanasia and assisted suicide for terminally ill people.

Manslaughter vs. Murder

The legal definitions of manslaughter in Australia are slightly different to the US.

In the ACT, a person is guilty of murder if they cause the death of another, intending to cause death or with reckless indifference to the probability of causing death, or intending to cause serious harm. Manslaughter is simply defined as “an unlawful homicide that is not, under section 12, murder.”1

There is no mention of acts or omissions in the offence of murder in the ACT. It is therefore conceivable had this happened in the ACT, Carter would have been convicted of murder, especially where the judge found Carter’s words of telling Roy to get back in the car constituted “wanton and reckless conduct.”2

The Michelle Carter case is extremely strange but likely to not be the last of this kind and will have an impact on Courts in the US, and potentially Australia.

Michelle Carter has just been sentenced to 2 and a half years imprisonment with 15 months to serve and 5 years’ probation. Ms carter was sentenced as a juvenile as she was 17 years old at the time she committed involuntary manslaughter of her boyfriend.

1 Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) s 12

2 Crimes Act 1990 (ACT) s 15