Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The “Youthful Offender,” Involuntary Manslaughter and the Text Messages

This post examines an opinion from the Massachusetts SupremeJ udicial Court – Suffolk:  Commonwealth v. Carter, 2016 WL 3554885 (2016).  The court begins the opinion by explaining that
[o]n February 6, 2015, the defendant, Michelle Carter, was indicted as a youthful offender under [Massachusetts General Laws] chapter 119, § 54, on a charge of involuntary manslaughter after she, at the age of seventeen, encouraged Conrad Roy (the victim), then eighteen years of age, to commit suicide. 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. [Massachusetts General Laws] chapter 119, § 54.

The defendant moved in the Juvenile Court to dismiss the youthful offender indictment, arguing that the Commonwealth failed to present the grand jury with sufficient evidence of involuntary manslaughter and that the defendant's conduct did not involve the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm. The motion was denied.
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
The court goes on to explain that the
principal question we consider in this case is whether the evidence was sufficient to warrant the return of an indictment for involuntary manslaughter where the defendant's conduct did not extend beyond words.
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
Since the issue was the sufficiency of the evidence to justify the indictment, the court went on to describe the evidence that was presented to the grand jury that returned the involuntary manslaughter indictment.  Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.  It began by explaining that the grand jury heard evidence from
four witnesses over the course of three days. That evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, see Commonwealth v. Moran, 453 Mass. 880, 906 N.E.2d 343 (2012), included the following:

On the afternoon of July 13, 2014, an officer with the Fairhaven police department located the deceased in his truck, parked in a store parking lot. The medical examiner concluded that the victim had died after inhaling carbon monoxide that was produced by a gasoline powered water pump located in the truck. The manner of death was suicide.
The victim had been receiving treatment for mental health issues since 2011. In 2013, the victim attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on acetaminophen. A friend saved his life by contacting emergency services.

During the course of the investigation into the victim's suicide, a police review of his recent electronic communications caused them to further explore his relationship with the defendant. The victim and the defendant met in 2011 and had been dating at various times during that period, including at the time of the victim's death. Because they did not live in the same town, the majority of their contact took place through the exchange of voluminous text messages and cellular telephone calls. The grand jury heard testimony and were presented with transcripts concerning the content of those text messages in the minutes, days, weeks, and months leading up to the defendant's suicide.

The messages revealed that the defendant was aware of the victim's history of mental illness, and of his previous suicide attempt, and that much of the communication between the defendant and the victim focused on suicide. Specifically, the defendant encouraged the victim to kill himself, instructed him as to when and how he should kill himself, assuaged his concerns over killing himself, and chastised him when he delayed doing so. The theme of those text messages can be summed up in the phrase used by the defendant four times between July 11 and July 12, 2014 (the day on which the victim committed suicide): `You just [have] to do it.’
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that
[c]ellular telephone records that were presented to the grand jury revealed that the victim and defendant also had two cellular telephone conversations at the time during which police believe that the victim was in his truck committing suicide. The content of those cellular telephone conversations is only available as reported by the defendant to her friend, Samantha Boardman. After the victim's death, the defendant sent a text message to Boardman explaining that, at one point during the suicide, the victim got out of his truck because he was `scared,’ and the defendant commanded him to get back in.

It was apparent that the defendant understood the repercussions of her role in the victim's death. Prior to his suicide, the defendant sought (apparently unsuccessfully) to have the victim delete the text messages between the two, and after learning that the police were looking through the victim's cellular telephone, the defendant sent the following text message to Boardman: `Sam, [the police] read my messages with him I'm done. His family will hate me and I can go to jail.’

During the investigation, and after cross-referencing the text messages in the defendant's cellular telephone and those in the victim's cellular telephone, the police discovered that the defendant had erased certain text messages between her and the victim. The defendant also lied to police about the content of her conversations with the victim. Finally, the defendant acknowledged in a text message to Boardman that she could have stopped the victim from committing suicide: `I helped ease him into it and told him it was okay, I was talking to him on the phone when he did it I coud have easily stopped him or called the police but I didn't.’
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
The court went on to point out that,
[b]ased on the foregoing evidence, the Commonwealth successfully sought to indict the defendant for involuntary manslaughter, as a youthful offender, asserting that the defendant's wanton or reckless conduct was the cause of the victim's death. After a judge of the Juvenile Court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss, the defendant filed a petition for relief under [Massachusetts General Laws] chapter 211, § 3. On February 1, 2016, a single justice of this court reserved and reported the case to the full court.
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
The court then began its analysis of Carter’s argument by explaining that
`[o]rdinarily, a “court will not inquire into the competency or sufficiency of the evidence before the grand jury.”’ Commonwealth v. Rex, 469 Mass. 36, 39, 11 N.E.3d 1060 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 2014) quoting Commonwealth v. Robinson, 373 Mass. 591, 592, 368 N.E.2d 1210 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 1977).

However, in Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 385 Mass. 160, 430 N.E.2d 1195 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 1982), we recognized a limited exception for when the grand jury `fail[ ] to hear any evidence of criminal activity by the defendant.’ `At the very least, the grand jury must hear enough evidence to establish the identity of the accused and to support a finding of probable cause to arrest the accused for the offense charged’ (footnote omitted). Commonwealth v. Rex, supra. `Probable cause requires sufficient facts to warrant a person of reasonable caution in believing that an offense has been committed . . . ; this standard requires considerably less than that which is required to warrant a finding of guilt’. . . . Commonwealth v. Levesque, 436 Mass. 443, 766 N.E.2d 50 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 2002).
Commonwealth v. Carter, supra.
Next, the court outlined the legal standards governing a charge of involuntary manslaughter:
Involuntary manslaughter can be proved under two theories, either (1) wanton or reckless conduct or (2) wanton or reckless failure to act. Commonwealth v. Life Care Ctrs. of Am., Inc., 456 Mass. 826, 926 N.E.2d 206 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 2010). The indictment was returned on the basis of the defendant's wanton or reckless conduct.

Wanton or reckless conduct is `intentional conduct . . . involv[ing] a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.’ Commonwealth v. Pugh, 462 Mass. 482, 969 N.E.2d 672 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 2012), quoting Commonwealth v. Welansky, 316 Mass. 383, 399, 55 N.E.2d 902 (1944).
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. . . . If based on the objective measure of recklessness, the 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 the 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’ (quotations and citations omitted).
Commonwealth v. Pugh, supra.
The court then began its analysis of the sufficiency of the evidence in this case, explaining, initially, that the
Commonwealth bore the burden of presenting the grand jury with sufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause that the defendant's conduct (1) was intentional; (2) was wanton or reckless; and (3) caused the victim's death.  Commonwealth v. Life Care Ctrs. of Am., Inc., supra.

The defendant argues that, because she neither was physically present when the victim killed himself nor provided the victim with the instrument with which he killed himself, she did not cause his death by wanton or reckless conduct. She maintains that verbally encouraging someone to commit suicide, no matter how forcefully, cannot constitute wanton or reckless conduct. Effectively, the argument is that verbal conduct can never overcome a person's willpower to live, and therefore cannot be the cause of a suicide. We disagree.

We have never required in the return of an indictment for involuntary manslaughter that a defendant commit a physical act in perpetrating a victim's death. We also never have had occasion to consider such an indictment against a defendant on the basis of words alone. This is not, however, the first time that we have contemplated the charge of involuntary manslaughter against a defendant where the death of the victim is self-inflicted. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Atencio, 345 Mass. 627, 189 N.E.2d 223 (1963);  Persampieri v. Commonwealth, 343 Mass. 19, 175 N.E.2d 387 (1961)
Commonwealth v. Pugh, supra.
The ourt went on to outline the issues involved in and the approaches the court applied in both the Atencio and Persampieri cases, in that order.  It began by explaining that
[a]t issue in Atencio was a `game’ of `Russian roulette’ played by the two defendants, Atencio and Marshall, and the deceased. Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. Marshall took the gun first, pointed it at his own head, and pulled the trigger; nothing happened. . . . . He passed the gun to Atencio, who also pointed the gun at his own head and pulled the trigger, again with no result. Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. Atencio then passed the gun to the deceased; when he pointed it at his own head and pulled the trigger, `[t]he cartridge exploded, and he fell over dead.’ Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra.

In affirming the involuntary manslaughter convictions against both defendants, we reasoned that `the Commonwealth had an interest that the deceased should not be killed by the wanton or reckless conduct of himself and others ” (emphasis added). Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. `Such conduct could be found in the concerted action and cooperation of the defendants in helping to bring about the deceased's foolish act,’ . . .as `[i]t would not be necessary that the defendants force the deceased to play or suggest that he play.' Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. We concluded that it did not matter that Atencio was the one who handed the gun to the deceased, as opposed to Marshall, affirming both defendants' convictions. Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra.

Indeed, had the deceased been the first to participate in the `game,’ and killed himself before either Atencio or Marshall touched the gun, his acts would still have been imputable to the defendants. Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. It was, instead, the atmosphere created in the decision to play the `game’ that caused the deceased to shoot himself, as there was `mutual encouragement’ to participate. Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra.
Commonwealth v. Pugh, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that in the Persampieri case,
the defendant told his wife that he intended to divorce her. She threatened to commit suicide. Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra. The defendant, knowing that the victim had already attempted suicide twice, said she was `chicken—and wouldn't do it.’  Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra. When she retrieved a .22 caliber rifle, he helped her to load it and handed it to her, noting that the safety was off. Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.

With the gun barrel on the floor, the victim struggled to pull the trigger. Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra. The defendant told her that if she took off her shoe she could reach the trigger, at which point she successfully shot and killed herself. Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra. We concluded that the jury were warranted in returning a verdict of involuntary manslaughter based on the theory of wanton or reckless conduct, . . . noting that the defendant, `instead of trying to bring [the victim] to her senses, taunted her, told her where the gun was, loaded it for her, saw that the safety was off, and told her the means by which she could pull the trigger. He thus showed a reckless disregard of his wife's safety and the possible consequences of his conduct.’
Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.
The Court then explained that the two cases above
elucidate that, because wanton or reckless conduct requires a consideration of the likelihood of a result occurring, the inquiry is by its nature entirely fact-specific. The circumstances of the situation dictate whether the conduct is or is not wanton or reckless. 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.
Here, the particular circumstances of the defendant's relationship with the victim may have caused her verbal communications with him in the last minutes of his life on July 12, 2014, to carry more weight than mere words, overcoming any independent will to live he might have had. It is in those final moments, when the victim had gotten out of his truck, expressing doubts about killing himself, on which a verdict in this case may ultimately turn. In that moment of equivocation, the victim could have continued to delay his death, perhaps attempting suicide again at a later date, or perhaps seeking treatment; or he could have gotten back into the truck and followed through on his suicide. The grand jury heard that the victim, after the defendant commanded him to `get back in,’ obeyed, returning to the truck, closing the door, and succumbing to the carbon monoxide.
Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.
It went on to point out that,
[i]n our view, the coercive quality of that final directive was sufficient in the specific circumstances of this case to support a finding of probable cause. Those circumstances included the defendant's virtual presence at the time of the suicide, the previous constant pressure the defendant had put on the victim, and his already delicate mental state. In sum, there was ample evidence to establish probable cause that the defendant's conduct was wanton or reckless, under either a subjective or an objective standard. The grand jury could have found that an ordinary person under the circumstances would have realized the gravity of the danger posed by telling the victim, who was mentally fragile, predisposed to suicidal inclinations, and in the process of killing himself, to get back in a truck filling with carbon monoxide and `just do it.’ . . . And significantly, the grand jury also could have found that the defendant—the victim's girl friend, with whom he was in constant and perpetual contact—on a subjective basis knew that she had some control over his actions.
Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.
The opinion then explains that the
defendant in this case argues that, even if she was wanton or reckless, her words (spoken when she was miles away from the victim) could not be the cause of the victim's death. Instead, it was his decision to get back in the truck that resulted in his suicide. We are not convinced.

Because there was evidence that the defendant's actions overbore the victim's willpower, there was probable cause to believe that the victim's return to the truck after the defendant told him to do so was not `an independent or intervening act’ that, as a matter of law, would preclude his action from being imputable to her See Commonwealth v. Atencio, supra. The text messages suggest that the victim had been delaying suicide for weeks; to ignore the influence the defendant had over the victim would be to oversimplify the circumstances surrounding his death. His delay of that suicide and subsequent excuses for such delays were followed by his girl friend's disappointment, frustration, and threats to seek unwanted treatment on his behalf. In sum, we conclude that there was probable cause to show that the coercive quality of the defendant's verbal conduct overwhelmed whatever willpower the eighteen year old victim had to cope with his depression, and that but for the defendant's admonishments, pressure, and instructions, the victim would not have gotten back into the truck and poisoned himself to death. Consequently, the evidence before the grand jury was sufficient for a finding of probable cause that the defendant, by wanton or reckless conduct, caused the victim's death.
Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.
The opinion then notes that
[i]t is important to articulate what this case is not about. It is not about a person seeking to ameliorate the anguish of someone coping with a terminal illness and questioning the value of life. Nor is it about a person offering support, comfort, and even assistance to a mature adult who, confronted with such circumstances, has decided to end his or her life. These situations are easily distinguishable from the present case, in which the grand jury heard evidence suggesting a systematic campaign of coercion on which the virtually present defendant embarked—captured and preserved through her text messages—that targeted the equivocating young victim's insecurities and acted to subvert his willpower in favor of her own. On the specific facts of this case, there was sufficient evidence to support a probable cause finding that the defendant's command to the victim in the final moments of his life to follow through on his suicide attempt was a direct, causal link to his death.
Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.
The Court therefore held that the
grand jury were [sic] justified in returning an indictment of involuntary manslaughter against the defendant. Because involuntary manslaughter carries a potential punishment of incarceration in State prison and is inherently a crime that involves the infliction of serious bodily harm, and because the defendant was seventeen years of age at the time of the offense, her indictment as a youthful offender on the underlying involuntary manslaughter charge was also supported by the evidence. The motion judge's denial of the defendant's motion to dismiss is affirmed.

Persampieri v. Commonwealth, supra.

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