Law School Case Brief
Commonwealth v. Carter - 481 Mass. 352, 115 N.E.3d 559 (2019)
Whether conduct is wanton or reckless is determined based either on the defendant's specific knowledge or on what a reasonable person should have known in the circumstances. Based on the objective measure of recklessness, a defendant's actions constitute wanton or reckless conduct if an ordinary normal person under the same circumstances would have realized the gravity of the danger. If based on a subjective measure, i.e., the defendant's own knowledge, grave danger to others must have been apparent and the defendant must have chosen to run the risk rather than alter his or her conduct so as to avoid the act or omission which caused the harm.
Between Oct. 2012 and July 2014, the victim Conrad Roy attempted suicide several times by various means, including overdosing on over-the-counter medication, drowning, water poisoning, and suffocation. None of these attempts succeeded, as the victim abandoned each attempt or sought rescue. At first, defendant Michelle Carter, who was the victim's girlfriend, urged the victim to seek professional help for his mental illness. In the days leading to July 12, 2014, the victim continued planning his suicide, including by securing a water pump that he would use to generate carbon monoxide in his closed truck. That night of the suicide, the victim called Carter, she later texted a friend saying "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 minutes and that's all I heard...I think he just killed himself." At age seventeen, Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter as a youthful offender for the suicide death of Roy, age eighteen. At a non-jury trial in Massachusetts superior court, the judge found that the victim got out of the truck, seeking fresh air, in a way similar to how he had abandoned his prior suicide attempts. When defendant realized he had gotten out of the truck, she instructed him to get back in, knowing that it had become a toxic environment and knowing the victim's fears, doubts, and fragile mental state. The victim followed that instruction. Thereafter, defendant, knowing the victim was inside the truck and that the water pump was operating—the judge noted that she could hear the sound of the pump and the victim's coughing—took no steps to save him. She did not call emergency personnel, contact the victim's family, or instruct him to get out of the truck. The victim remained in the truck and succumbed to the carbon monoxide. The judge concluded that defendant's actions and her failure to act constituted, "each and all," wanton and reckless conduct that caused the victim's death. Defendant was convicted, as a youthful offender, of involuntary manslaughter for the suicide death of the victim. Defendant's application for direct appellate review was granted. Defendant argued that her conviction was not supported by sufficient evidence.
Was defendant's conviction supported by sufficient evidence?
The The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed defendant's conviction. The court held that there was sufficient evidence that supported defendant's involuntary manslaughter conviction for ordering the victim, her boyfriend, to complete his suicide because her inculpatory statement was corroborated, and she overpowered his will, creating a high likelihood of substantial harm. The court further held that involuntary manslaughter law was not unconstitutionally vague as applied because it gave notice she might be so charged for reckless verbal conduct causing a victim's suicide. Her conviction did not offend free speech because her conduct was not necessarily related to speech, and criminal conduct speech was unprotected. The court also noted that her conviction as a youthful offender was proper because her crime inherently inflicted serious bodily harm. A "reasonable juvenile" standard did not apply because her conduct was subjectively reckless.
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