Trial Begins for Teen Accused of Urging Boyfriend to Suicide

What you need to know about the case against Michelle Carter, accused of using text messages to push her boyfriend into taking his own life

Attorney Joseph Cataldo talks to his client, Michelle Carter on Monday, June 5th. Credit: Faith Ninivaggi/AP

Update: Michelle Carter waived her right to a jury trial, opting instead for the decision to be reached in by the judge in a bench trial.

A Massachusetts woman is currently on trial for allegedly manipulating her boyfriend via text messages to take his own life.

Michelle Carter was a 17-year-old high school student when, according to the Bristol County District Attorney's Office, she used text messages to encourage her boyfriend Conrad Roy III to kill himself on July 12th, 2014. Roy, 18, a high school graduate who had just been accepted to Fitchburg State University, rigged up a gasoline-powered water pump and sat in his truck in a Kmart parking lot in order to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. He had second thoughts and stepped out of the vehicle, but then he talked with his girlfriend on his cell phone and received a text pushing him to "Get back in." And so he did.

In February 2015, Carter was arraigned in New Bedford Juvenile Court in Bristol County where a grand jury found enough evidence to charge her with involuntary manslaughter since she "wantonly and recklessly" assisted in the suicide. She was indicted as a "youthful offender" which meant that instead of a typical juvenile charge, prosecutors could seek a more severe prison sentence of 20 years. She was released on a $250,000 bail and has since pleaded not guilty.

According to local news reports, Carter sent Roy dozens of texts helping him plan his death. She told him he was hesitating and insisted he was prepared to follow through with the plan. She texted, "No more pushing it off. No more waiting." Carter's defense lawyers argued that Roy was depressed with suicidal ideations, and their client actually tried to talk him out of ending it all. More than a month before the death, she sent a text, "Let's get better and fight this together." They also argued that Carter's words were "free speech" and cannot be criminalized under state law.

Carter, now 20, is facing her accusers in Taunton District Court in Bristol County. With jury selection scheduled to begin Monday, here is everything you need to know about the trial, from how Carter met Roy to the courtroom strategies expected from the defense and prosecution teams.

The two were normal high-school kids, but had dealt with mental illness in the past
Roy was a brown-haired, athletic Red Sox fan who grew up in a coastal former whaling town about 60 miles south of Boston. He earned high marks at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, and had his captain's license because, according to New York Magazine, his grandfather owned a tugboat company. He lived an hour drive south from Carter, a blond-haired, athletic honor roll student at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham.

According to New York, the two met when vacationing on the Gulf of Mexico in Naples, Florida. They returned home where they hardly saw each other, but fostered a relationship based on texting and social media.

Despite their outward appearances, they both had "admitted mental illness," according to the Boston Globe. Roy would struggle with social anxiety and saw therapists and counselors after overdosing on acetaminophen. Carter received treatment at McLean Hospital, the psychiatric affiliate of Harvard University.

Carter kept up appearances after her boyfriend's death
Since Carter's arrest, her defense created a narrative that she was a confused teenager who was manipulated by her suicidal boyfriend. But prosecutors, in turn, described Carter as a sociopath who preyed upon a fragile-minded young man.

Roy's family said Carter's actions after her boyfriend's death made her appear calculative rather than innocent. Three months after Roy's death, Carter organized a softball tournament and raised funds for mental health awareness, according to CNN. She took to Twitter, "I can't believe today already marks four months without you. I love you and miss you always Conrad." Police have said she also texted Roy's mother, Lynn, until the end of that year and wrote, "I saw my life with him" and "you need to know that it is not your fault." She told the grieving mother that Roy "didn't think he'd be a good husband or father and didn't want his kid to have the same problem."

Roy's family became infuriated when they saw photographs on Twitter showing her in a prom dress and touring Disney World despite a court order telling her to stay off social media pending her trial, according to The Sun Chronicle. But Carter's lawyer, Joseph Cataldo, argued that his client's trip to Orlando was part of a planned school Distributive Education Clubs of America trip that raised funds for charity and she was a teenager who "must continue on with her educational and life pursuits."

Defense wanted the case thrown out of court 
Early in court proceedings, Cataldo pressured Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn, Roy's third cousin, to rescind himself from the case. Quinn turned the case over to Bristol prosecutors Katie Rayburn and MaryClare Flynn.

Cataldo then tried to have the involuntary manslaughter case thrown out, contending that Carter's actions did not violate any state law and prosecutors charged her with manslaughter as a "transparent effort calculated to circumvent the fact that the legislature has not criminalized words that encourage suicide." In September 2015, Bristol County's Taunton Juvenile Court Judge Bettina Borders rejected Cataldo's motion to dismiss the charge. At the time, Bob McGovern, the Boston Herald's legal columnist, wrote that when Carter told her boyfriend to get back into the vehicle, she "broke every law of human decency – but she didn't commit an actual crime" since the state does not have laws against encouraging suicide.

In April 2016, Cataldo repeated his arguments before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Three months later, the high court ruled that Carter could indeed be tried as a "youthful offender" for involuntary manslaughter since she could have had "verbal communications" with her boyfriend to "carry more weight than mere words, overcoming any independent will to live he might have had," Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy wrote. 

An interview with Carter is going to be heard in court, despite defense claims that Carter's Miranda rights were violated
Three months after Roy's death, Carter sat down at her high school with investigators and gave them an interview, even allowing them access to her phone and, later that day, her computer. Cataldo later claimed this interview shouldn't be presented in court, as detectives did not advise Carter of her Miranda rights. Though the court took it under consideration, last November a Taunton District judge in Bristol County ruled that the interview will be heard.

During the interview, Carter told investigators that she wanted to help her boyfriend. "I told him I loved him," Carter said, according to the Boston Herald. "I told him a lot of people loved him ... I told him he should come with me and get the help he needed." But prosecutors plan to argue that her kind words contradict her unlocked texts sent before Roy's death. "Just go somewhere in your truck and no one is really out there right now because it's an awkward time," she said, according to court documents. "If you don't do it now you're never gonna do it, and you can say you'll do it tomorrow, but you probably won't." She even seemingly admitted guilt later, texting a friend, "It's all my fault because I could have stopped him but I [expletive] didn't. All I had to say was I love you and don't do this one more time, and he'd still be here."

Defense questions police version of events
Roy spent his last day on the beach with his mother and two sisters, according to New York Magazine. After instructions from Carter, he drove himself to the Kmart parking lot in nearby Fairhaven where he talked to his girlfriend in two lengthy phone calls ending 6:26 p.m., according to South Coast Today. Cataldo argued that police did not spot Roy's truck during a routine check of the Kmart parking lot at 3 a.m. Instead they found the vehicle with his dead body inside at 5 p.m. on July 13th 2014.

Cataldo plans to argue that the timeline does not match up when the prosecution's claim that Roy killed himself immediately after talking with Carter, according to The Sun Chronicle. Roy "had plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do" between the time he hung up the phone and when his body was found in the parking lot.

Defense blames prescription drugs her Carter's actions
According to the Boston Globe, Carter and Roy were taking the same antidepressant: citalopram, also known as Celexa.

In March, psychiatrist Peter Breggin told the court during a pretrial hearing that Carter was "involuntarily intoxicated" when text messaging while taking Celexa. "She had no notion of the wrongfulness of what she was doing," Breggin said, according to The Sun Chronicle. Breggin, who reviewed Carter's school and medical records, said that her behavior could have became irrational while on the drug, but she "did not have power or control" over her older, more mature boyfriend over the phone or through social media.

A judge ruled that Breggin could testify at trial along with Roger Williams University forensic psychologist Frank DiCataldo, who will speak about juvenile and adolescent development.

Essentially, Cataldo is looking to prove that Carter's antidepressant use affected her thinking but she was not criminally responsible for the death of another troubled teenager, according to The Sun Chronicle. When prosecutors called Breggin an "extremist" who rarely prescribed prescription drugs for mental health issues, Cataldo defended him saying he was "at the forefront of raising alarm bells about what these medications can do."