The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case of Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter yesterday. In this Blog, I have outlined some of the key issues that the SJC addressed during the oral argument.
Was there sufficient evidence to convict Carter of involuntary manslaughter?
The defense lawyer argued that the key pieces of evidence is the defendant’s text from two months after where she told a friend that she told him to get back into the truck. The defense contended that that text message was part of very long and rambling texts so that to use a text as the basis to find her guilty was not supported by sufficient evidence.
The defendant argued that other than that evidence, there is no evidence that Roy was in the truck at the time the defendant told him to get back in. The defense lawyer argued that under Commonwealth v. Forde, 392 Mass. 453 (1984), there has to be corroboration of a confession to have sufficient evidence of a conviction. Justice Cyphers suggested that that standard is not very high and it was met here. Later, in the defense argument, the Chief Justice stated that the defense argument on that points lacks merit and is inconsistent with the law.
There was discuss in the oral argument about the standard of review to apply. A day prior the argument, the SJC wrote in Commonwealth v. Tremblay that when the evidence is in the form of documents, the Court does not need to apply the same standard of difference if it can review the evidence as well as the trial judge.
Justice Link, who wrote the opinion in Tremblay, suggested that since much of the evidence was text message that the SJC was in as good as a position as the trial judge to evaluate the evidence.
This view may not have been shared by the rest of the panel. Justice Graziano went at the defense lawyer for not using the Latimore Standard. The defense lawyer argued what is not proven, the Justice reminded him that the facts have to be looked at in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth.
Did the Commonwealth prove that Carter caused the death of Roy?
The defense lawyer argued that the Commonwealth did not prove evidence of causation. His argument was that even if Carter told him to get back in the truck, there was no evidence that she caused his death, that he would have lived if she called 911 or that he would have listened to her if she told him to get out of it. There was substantial evidence in the record that Roy had tried to kill himself before and that he wanted to talk his own life. The defense argued that the Commonwealth presented no evidence to indicate the time of death or any of his actions would have prevented her death. The defense relied on the case of Commonwealth v. Pugh, 462 Mass. 482 (2012) to argue that the Commonwealth did not prove causation. In the Pugh case, the SJC overturned an involuntary manslaughter conviction when a child died during an unassisted child birth. The Commonwealth had alleged that the woman acted wantonly and reckless by using force during the child birth; however, the medical experts at the trial could not testify as to how the child died or the caused of death. In this case, since the Roy had indicated he wanted to commit suicide in the past, had intended to commit suicide, how can the judge find that Roy would have listened to the defendant if he urged him to get back out of the car.
Did the defendant inflict harm under the Youthful Offender Statute?
The defendant argued that for the purpose of the Youthful Offender statute the legislature required that the defendant inflict harm. The defendant argued that based on the plain meaning of the statute, infliction requires a physical act. The defense argued that infliction requires the use of force. The defendant argued that infliction means something; it is in the statute and based on its ordinary definition, there was no infliction here.
Was the theory of the verdict supported by the indictment and what the SJC found probable cause to support the indictment in Carter I?
One of the key issues is that there are potentially two theories of liability for involuntary manslaughter conviction. The first is wanton and reckless conduct and the second is wanton and reckless failure to act. The SJC stated that it had focused on the wanton and reckless conduct because of the element of coercion that was inflicted in finding probable cause in Carter I. The SJC was perplexed by what it should do with the judge factual findings. Normally at a jury trial, a jury announces its decision without any reasoning given. At a bench trial, sometimes a judge will give reasoning but is not required. In the Carter case, the judge gave extensive reasoning, while indicating his findings were not complete. I think it is clear why he gave detailed findings. Given the publicity of the case, he wanted all sides to know his thought process in the case. While this was I think helpful to the public and the parties, it caused the SJC some difficulty in assessing how they should view the findings and the deference to give to the findings. Also, it creates a potential inconsistency between his theory of finding Carter guilty and the indictment in the case.
In Carter I, the SJC defined the probable cause based on the fact that there was evidence that the defendant conduct was coercive convincing the defendant to commit suicide. The judge did not find that finding. The judge found that by not rendering aid to the defendant after telling her to get back in the car, the defendant committed involuntary manslaughter by failing to act to prevent harm to Roy. That theory the defense argued was not set forth in the indictment or contemplated by the SJC. The Chief Justice stated that it did not focus on a failure to act theory in Carter I.
The Justice in Carter I attempted to distinguish Carter conduct from someone that from someone who assists someone who is terminally ill to commit suicide. However, the judge’s theory to find Carter guilty would mean that that conduct constitutes involuntary manslaughter based on the court’s reasoning. The Court should enter a judgment of acquittal for Carter as the was not sufficient evidence to support the guilty verdict based on the indictment.
If the Court affirms the conviction, the court would, as the prosecutor argued, hold it was implicit that he found her will overborne and found Carter guilty on both theories, failure to act and coercing Roy back into the truck.
In this case, the judge’s factual findings, complicate the Court review. Had the judge not put his reasoning on the record, the Court would have been more likely to affirm the conviction based on the Latimore standard which requires the evidence to be viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth.
This case involves very complex issues of Constitutional Law for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. A decision in this case is unlikely to come for at least four months. You can listen to the oral argument at the Suffolk University Law School Website.