By Alexis Esneault
The case of Commonwealth v. Carter, ultimately resulting in Ms. Michelle Carter’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter has gone viral, but for all the wrong reasons. When assessing the validity or strength of any legal decision, people should have the facts and the law straight before developing an opinion and look to the actual case, rather than relying on click bait articles that result in comment wars.
This case is centered on a text message exchange between Ms. Carter and her boyfriend, Mr. Roy, in which she repeatedly encourages him to take his own life, and convinces him to get back into his truck, ultimately leading to his death as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the world of criminal homicide, there is an abyss between murder and manslaughter, the operative difference being, murder involves premeditated intent, while manslaughter does not. Involuntary Manslaughter, the crime of which Ms. Carter was convicted, is the least serious form of criminal homicide in many jurisdictions.
All that being said, let’s look at some of the current arguments out there:
“Ms. Carter has mental problems just like her boyfriend, she needs help, she doesn’t need to go to jail!”
Ms. Carter, just like her boyfriend, suffered from mental problems taking the form depression and other psychological issues. Guess what? Not relevant to the case. She was convicted on involuntary manslaughter, meaning that her mens rea (guilty mind), also known as intent, is not at issue. No one argued that she intended to kill her boyfriend with malice aforethought. Instead, she was convicted for “wonton or reckless conduct” that “involved a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another.” Using a reasonable person standard, meaning that any normal person in Ms. Carter’s shoes would have “realized the gravity of the danger” of her actions. In other words, Ms. Carter intentionally sent those messages, messages that she knew or should have known, or would have a high likelihood of causing Mr. Roy to get back in his car, ultimately leading to his death.
Furthermore, the whole argument that Ms. Carter will rot in jail for 20 years is completely misguided and uninformed. Ms. Carter was indicted as a youthful offender. Being a youthful offender basically means that she received one free pass as someone who is young and stupid, literally a get out of jail free card. Reading directly from the denial of the motion to dismiss Ms. Carter’s indictment as a youthful offender:
“To indict a juvenile as a youthful offender, the grand jury must hear evidence establishing probable cause that (1) the juvenile is between the ages of fourteen and eighteen at the time of the underlying offense; (2) the underlying offense, if committed by an adult, would be punishable by imprisonment in State prison; and (3) the underlying offense involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm.”
Long story short, she was not tried as an adult. Therefore, it is incredibly unlikely that she will land 20 years in prison when the sentence is handed down in August. If I had to guess, she will more than likely be placed on probation or some combination of probation + another element. In other words, if she makes the same mistakes again, then she might find herself in prison.
“But my Free Speech!! This is going to lead to a slippery slope where mean people are convicted just for being mean!”
Wrong again. There is no bright line legal precedent established by the finding in this case. As the judge in this case states upon denial of the motion to dismiss the indictment, “We need not—and indeed cannot—define where on the spectrum between speech and physical acts involuntary manslaughter must fall. Instead, the inquiry must be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Ahem… Case-by-case basis. We have a legal system that involves judges and juries for a reason. There is the law, and then there is the person who determines the facts of the case viewed in light of the relevant law. Whether bench or jury trial, the specific facts are taken into consideration, and an analysis is made as to whether or not those facts fit the elements of the crime for which the defendant was indicted. Then a judgment is put forth. The existence of a jury as an adjudicator of facts prevents dangerous slippery sloped in this case, as future cases can distinguish what is manslaughter from what is simply someone being mean.
In summary, it is incredibly sad that the actions of Ms. Carter resulted in Mr. Roy ultimately getting back into the truck, leading to his death. It is never a good situation when someone’s life comes to an end, but this conviction is not the end of the world for Ms. Carter. Having been charged as a Y.O., this conviction will carry a much lighter sentence than it would have had she been tried as an adult, and if it is anything like it is in my home state of Alabama, it will not follow her around on a criminal record. We can only hope that Ms. Carter has learned her lesson, and that maybe, just maybe, this case will encourage other teenagers to help their peers find the help they need.
Alexis Esneault is a rising 3L at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama, where she serves as president of the Federalist Society. She graduated with honors from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in May of 2015 where she served as founder and president of her Young Americans for Liberty chapter. Eagerly spreading the ideas of liberty, Alexis has served in national leadership roles for Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Liberty, and Take Back Our Republic.
Source of Quotes:
Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, Westlaw, 474 Mass. 624, 52 N.E.3d 1054