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Massachusetts SJC uphold Michelle Carter’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Michelle Carter’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter.  The SJC began its decision by addressing what it decided in Michelle Carter’s first appeal to the SJC referred to as Carter I.  In Carter I, the SJC held that verbal conduct alone could overcome a person’s will and rise to wanton and reckless conduct to support a conviction for involuntary manslaughter.

The SJC held that the evidence presented to the trial judge was sufficient to support a conviction.  The SJC essentially adopted the reasoning of the trial judge in the case.

Key Evidence Supporting the conviction 

After the incident, Carter sent a text message indicating that Roy got back into the truck because she told him to get back in.  The defense argued that the conviction could not rest on her statement alone because the law requires that a conviction cannot be based solely on a confession.  This law was set forth by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Forde, 392 Mass. 453 (1984).  The SJC found that there was evidence supporting the conviction independent of Carter’s confession.  The Court found that the text message exchange contemporaneous with his suicide supported the conviction.  Further, the Court credited the trial judge when he stated in his decision he expressly looked for independent evidence of corroboration to support the conviction.

Time Line Referenced by the Trial Judge

The SJC further credited the time distinction that the trial judge found significant.  The judge found that when the victim got out of the truck he broke the chain of self causation.  The trial judge found that the victim was going to end his suicide attempts, but for the fact that the defendant overpowered his will and ordered him back into the truck.  The SJC affirmed that there was sufficient evidence to support causation that the defendant caused Roy’s death.

The SJC regarded its decision today as essentially affirming its decision in Carter I that a fact finder could find that words alone can constitute involuntary manslaughter.  The trial judge applied the reasoning in Carter I and determined that each element was met by the Commonwealth.

What’s Next for Michelle Carter

The SJC decision means that Carter is likely to have to begin serving her eighteen month jail sentence.  An appeal to the United States Supreme Court is possible.  The only issue that I would anticipate the Supreme Court accepting the case on would be the first amendment argument.  As for the argument on the sufficiency of the evidence, that only raises a Constitutional argument under the due process clause; I think the vagueness argument and due process argument regarding insufficiency of the evidence would not result in Supreme Court review.

Regarding the First Amendment argument, the defense was arguing that to prosecute someone for involuntary manslaughter based on verbal conduct would be a content restriction on Free Speech that would not withstand strict scrutiny.  Strict Scrutiny is the high standard that a court must apply before upholding a law that abridges Free Speech or any right protected by the Bill of Rights.

The SJC rejected this argument finding that it was not punishing words alone, but reckless and wanton words that cause death.  The SJC rejected the defendant’s claim that it would have to apply strict scrutiny to the law, but found even if it was applying that standard, that the law would not violate the First Amendment that the restriction on speech is necessary to protect life and overcoming someone’s will to cause death.  The SJC rejected the argument that this case is similar to end-of-life discussions between doctors or family members based on mental suffering.  The defense in its brief argued that to find Carter guilty than others in life ending situation would potentially be subject to prosecution for involuntary manslaughter.

Failure to Allow the Defendant’s expert to testify 

A final issue before the SJC was whether the trial judge committed error in declining to hear expert testimony from a forensic psychologist who would have testified to general principles of the undeveloped adolescent brain.  I think the flaw with the trial judge’s reasoning is that Carter had many of her own mental and emotional issues at the time.  Had the judge heard this testimony, he may have looked at the confession from the text message in a different context. It appears that the judge placed great weight on the after the fact text message.  Given that Carter was not there, the judge should not have found that she intended beyond a reasonable doubt to cause his death as she would not have known the full circumstances he was facing, given the victim prior suicide attempts.

The Carter decision will be a leading case on this issue throughout the United States.  A case like this is unlikely to reoccur given the unique facts of the case, but its reasoning will have an impact on other bullying statutes and the use of involuntary manslaughter statutes to address criminal charges brought as a result of bullying.

To read more about the case, you can visit the NBC news website.  To speak to Attorney DelSignore about the case you can contact him on Twitter or by phone or text at 781-686-5924.

 

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