On June 16, 2017, The judge in the case of Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter in Taunton Juvenile Court found Ms. Carter guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter Caused by Wanton and Reckless Conduct after a two week bench trial. Ms. Carter was alleged to have encouraged her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide via text messages. The act of suicide was poisoning by running exhaust from a gas powered water pump into his vehicle.
The judge read his decision in open court: He started by noting that he divided the evidence into three components: 1) June 29, 2014 to end of text messages on July 12, 2014; 2) phone conversations to end of text messages through July 13, 2014; and 3) all other evidence not encompassed in the other periods.
The judge then summarized the evidence and legal precedent, including a case that is over 200 years old. In his summary, he acknowledged that the defense had presented the testimony of a psychologist who believed that Ms. Carter did not have the ability to form the intent necessary to cause someone’s death, because she was on medication that altered her judgment. However, the judge found that this witness was not credible. The judge found that the actions as to June 30-July 12 constituted wanton and reckless conduct in serious disregard of another’s life, and he went on to say that the Commonwealth has not proven as to that time period that said behavior caused the death of Mr. Roy. However, he did find her guilty based on the evidence for the period that included the day and time that Mr. Roy was in the process of committing suicide. He found that she was in communication with Mr. Roy and encouraged him to go through with the suicide. The judge also noted that her failure to call for aid when she knew that he was dying factored into his decision.
What is Involuntary Manslaughter by Wanton and Reckless Conduct? The Massachusetts Model Jury Instruction reads, in part, as follows:
Wanton and reckless conduct is intentional conduct that created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another person. Wanton and reckless conduct usually involves an affirmative act. An omission or failure to act may constitute wanton and reckless conduct where the defendant has a duty to act.
To prove that the defendant is guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of wanton and reckless conduct, the Commonwealth must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
1. The defendant caused the victim’s death;
2. The defendant intended the conduct that caused the victim’s death;
3. The defendant’s conduct was wanton and reckless.
Wanton and reckless conduct is conduct that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. It is conduct involving a grave risk of harm to another that a person undertakes with indifference to or disregard of the consequences of such conduct. Whether conduct is wanton and reckless depends either on what the defendant knew or how a reasonable person would have acted knowing what the defendant knew. If the defendant realized the grave risk created by his conduct, his subsequent act amounts to wanton and reckless conduct whether or not a reasonable person would have realized the risk of grave danger. Even if the defendant himself did not realize the grave risk of harm to another, the act would constitute wanton and reckless conduct if a reasonable person, knowing what the defendant knew, would have realized the act posed a risk of grave danger to another. It is not enough for the Commonwealth to prove the defendant acted negligently, that is, in a manner that a reasonably careful person would not have acted. The Commonwealth must prove that the defendant’s actions went beyond negligence and amounted to wanton and reckless conduct as I have defined that term.
An intentional omission or failure to act that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another may constitute involuntary manslaughter where the defendant has a duty to act. Such a duty may arise out of a special relationship. A duty may also arise where a person creates a situation that poses a grave risk of death or serious injury to another. When such a duty is owed, a failure to act that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another is wanton and reckless.
The case will be appealed, and the higher court may have a different view of the legal basis for finding Ms. Carter guilty.