Every once in a while, I feel the need to post my thoughts on a high-profile criminal case. The recent “cyber-bullying” case against Michelle Carter, the subject of a recent HBO 2-part documentary, is an example.
Michelle Carter’s case is, understandably, an intensely emotional one. The victim’s analogy to Romeo and Juliet was insightful in terms of the gripping power of this tragic tale of star-crossed lovers.
As a legal matter, this case has been highlighted as a dilemma between the right to free-speech vs. the need to protect against cyber-bullying. See articles like this one. While the HBO documentary was well done, most of the media – in its thirst for salacious details – has focused on the wrong issue by suggesting this is a “free speech” case.
The basic facts of the case are largely not in dispute and were largely recorded by text (with the notable exception of a lengthy and unrecorded telephone conversation between the defendant and victim). The prosecution sought to present Michelle Carter as a manipulative, sociopathic temptress that intentionally and maliciously convinced her mentally-disturbed and vulnerable boyfriend to commit suicide so that she could gain some attention from her friends. If she is the person the prosecution painted her out to be, she clearly is guilty of the involuntary manslaughter charge that the judge convicted her of.
Contrary to the media’s claims, there is no problematic free speech issue in this case. For centuries, free speech in our country has been limited and restricted. Pure speech, and nothing more, can be the basis for criminal prosecution under certain circumstances. A classic example of that is a defendant making a “criminal threat” in which the victim reasonably believes he/she is going to be the subject of an immediate, violent attack by the defendant.
The media suggests these “cyber-bullying” cases could lead to a highly problematic “slippery slope” – i.e., if Michelle Carter is guilty of a crime, where do we stop? That is a non-issue. Of course we need to be able to distinguish between (1) someone blowing off some steam by saying “go kill yourself,” and (2) the infamous words of Michelle Carter (“get back in,” which allegedly led to the victim committing suicide). However, we routinely examine context to determine whether pure words constitute criminal liability. There is no reason to suggest we cannot do it in cases of cyber-bullying. The prosecution still needs to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, including the specific intent of the defendant. Context matters, and that is routine in speech crime cases like this one – the importance of focusing on context, and ensuring that we evaluate the totality of the circumstances, allow us to avoid the “slippery slope” problem.
The real issue in the Michelle Carter case is whether the evidence against the defendant was sufficient, particularly with regard to the defendant’s specific intent. While the HBO special may have selectively presented evidence (a necessity in a summarizing documentary), there was enough defense evidence presented to suggest some real questions about whether the facts in this particular case should have led to a conviction, including:
- Michelle Carter was a teenager, and there is strong scientific evidence to support the claim that juveniles do not have the full brain development that adults do, and impulse control is a major part of that.
- Michelle Carter was taking psychiatric drugs that, according to the defense expert, may have caused her to reasonably believe she was helping the victim. While it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a defense expert stretched or contorted the truth, or painted a highly misleading version of the truth, it would have been very helpful to hear the Judge’s explanation of why that expert witness testimony was not credible enough to create at least a reasonable doubt.
- The alleged statements made by Michelle Carter, when presented as part of a whole picture, include texts proving that (1) Michelle Carter repeatedly told the defendant not to commit suicide on multiple occasions, and (2) the victim told Michelle Carter that she had better not ever tell anyone of his suicidal desires or else he would hate her. The “big picture” presented by the defense creates a real question as to the true intent of Michelle Carter’s alleged criminal statements. Context matters, and it matters a lot.
- The most problematic statements allegedly made by Michelle Carter that supported the prosecution against her (including the infamous “get back in” statement she allegedly made) were not texts or recorded phone calls. They were statements Michelle Carter made after the fact about what she claimed she said to the victim at the time. Michelle Carter clearly is not a reliable source of what happened, for numerous reasons. And, while it is sometimes reasonable to assume that we can trust a known liar’s admission of a crime (because there is no good reason to assume they would lie about that), such a theory is more problematic and questionable in this case and with this defendant.
The notion that someone could be guilty of involuntary manslaughter based on cyber-bullying is an easy one. No question, they can, and under the right circumstances, should be. Free speech is not an absolute defense. However, the media should instead focus (as the HBO documentary did) on a far more interesting question: whether the evidence in this case was sufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, Michelle Carter’s criminal intent.