PEOPLE Explains: Michelle Carter Faces Up to 20 Years for Urging Boyfriend Via Texts to Kill Himself
Today Michelle Carter will learn whether her encouragement of her 18-year-old boyfriend’s 2014 suicide will result in leniency or a long time behind bars.
Carter, then 17, was convicted in June of involuntary manslaughter for urging Conrad Roy III, 18, through texts and phone conversations to kill himself, even as the young man who battled depression told her he wanted to abandon his plan.
Now 20, Carter faces up to 20 years in prison.
Here are six things to know about the case.
1. Conrad Died of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Roy, from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, was known to his friends as a “funny, flirty” athlete who’d recently earned his sea captain’s license and dreamed of taking over his family’s marine towing and salvage business. But he also struggled with anxiety and depression and had previously attempted suicide.
On July 13, 2014, authorities found Roy’s body in his pickup truck, in a parking lot where, the night before, he had attached a hose to a portable generator to fill the cab with the carbon monoxide that killed him.
2. Michelle Carter Implored Roy to Go Through with His Suicide
Investigators soon discovered a series of text messages — eventually more than 1,000, according to prosecutors — sent in the week prior to Roy’s death and exchanged between him and Carter, who said that she was his girlfriend.
Among those were ones from her that stated: “You always say you’re gonna do it, but you never do. I just want to make sure tonight is the real thing,” “You just have to do it” and “It’s painless and quick.”
Police also found Carter’s subsequent written admission to a friend in which she recalled a phone call with Roy, who had exited his truck as it filled with toxic fumes. He told her that he was scared and didn’t want to abandon his family.
“Get back in,” Carter said she told him.
3. Her Lawyer Said She Shouldn’t Have Faced Criminal Charges
Carter’s attorney, Joseph Cataldo, doesn’t dispute that his client texted Roy — but he has said the messages were not criminal and did not rise to the level of manslaughter.
“A lot of what has been reported thus far is that Michelle Carter always wanted to endorse Conrad Roy’s plan to kill himself,” he previously told PEOPLE. “For weeks prior to agreeing to his plan, she tried to talk him out of it, and he tried to get her to commit suicide with him.”
Cataldo argued before Carter’s trial that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which allowed the manslaughter charge to proceed, wrongly expanded the crime’s definition to include an alleged killer who was not present at the scene.
He said the court also overlooked that Carter had previously tried to convince Roy not to kill himself.
“It is in the various text messages that she tells him that he should get help and go to McLean Hospital,” a psychiatric facility where Carter had also once been a patient, Cataldo told PEOPLE.
But, he said, Roy “rejected that, stating that she doesn’t understand that he just wants to die. And this was about three weeks prior to him killing himself.”
Cataldo also tried to dismiss the charge against Carter by arguing her texts were free speech protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed, ruling that “it was apparent that the defendant understood the repercussions of her role in the victim’s death. Prior to his death, the defendant sought [apparently unsuccessfully] to have the victim delete the text messages between the two.”
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4. Carter Told a Friend, ‘His Death Was My Fault’
Carter and Roy met several years before his suicide while on separate vacations to Florida; Carter was the granddaughter of a Roy family friend.
Though they lived about an hour apart — Roy in Fairhaven and Carter in Plainville, Massachusetts — the two stayed in touch through calls, emails and texts, Roy’s family and friends have said.
According to police, on July 10, 2014, three days before Roy was found dead, Carter began texting and emailing others and claiming that Roy was missing when she knew otherwise.
Investigators suspect this was part of a larger plot.
As stated in a police affidavit, “It is believed that Carter acted in this way because she was planning to continue to encourage Conrad to take his own life, so as a result she was beginning to put together a plan to get sympathy from her friends, which was evident because at this point she already started explaining that it’s her fault that Conrad is dead, even though he was still alive and speaking and texting with her regularly.”
On the day of Roy’s suicide, Carter texted a friend that “he just called me and there was a loud noise like a motor and I heard moaning like someone was in pain and he wouldn’t answer when I said his name I stayed on the phone for like 20 mins and that’s all I heard.”
She would later write to that same friend, apparently referring to Roy: “His death was my fault … he got out of the car, and I told him to get back in … because I knew he would do it all over again the next day.”
5. The Case Raised Complicated Legal Questions
Carter waived her right to a jury trial and placed her fate in the hands of a judge in Massachusetts’ Bristol County Juvenile Court.
Legal scholars watched closely as her case unfolded, and debated whether it was appropriate to bring criminal charges against someone for words and not actions.
“Prosecutors will have to prove that Carter [caused] Conrad Roy to kill himself and essentially caused his death,” Daniel Medwed, a law and criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, told The Washington Post ahead of the trial. “Defense lawyers are going to argue that he’s had suicidal tendencies predating their relationship. They’re going to emphasize that he was alone in his car, that ultimately it was his decision.”
He added, “She knew he was suicidal, but did she know that he was going to go through with it?”
6. The Judge Found Fault With Carter’s Failure to Intervene in Roy’s Final Moments
In his June ruling that found Carter guilty after a six-day trial, Massachusetts Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz zeroed in on Roy’s last moments, when he expressed his fears to Carter while his pickup filled with carbon monoxide.
“She [instructed] Mr. Roy to get back into the truck, well-knowing of all of the feelings that he [had] exchanged with her: his ambiguities, his fears, his concerns,” the judge said.
“She did nothing. She did not call the police or Mr. Roy’s family,” Moniz said of Carter. “Finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction [to Roy]: ‘Get out of the truck.'”
During Carter’s trial, a psychiatrist testified that antidepressants prescribed to her before Roy died may have impeded her ability to empathize with others and make sound decisions. The judge said he did not find that credible.
After Roy’s body was discovered, Carter texted a friend to confess her role.
“I could have stopped it,” she wrote. “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I [expletive] told him to get back in.”
Suicide Prevention: What to Know
Experts say some common warning signs of suicide include discussing a desire to die or feeling anxious or hopeless, like a burden, or trapped or in pain; withdrawing from others; extreme mood swings, including anger and recklessness; and abnormal sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little).
Many suicides have multiple causes and are not triggered by one event, according to experts, who underline that suicidal crises can be overcome with help. Where mental illness is a factor, it can be treated.
Reaching out to those in need is a simple and effective preventative measure, experts say.