Everyone knows teenagers say and do stupid things. Sometimes, really stupid things. And unless you’ve kept the teenager in your life under a rock they also text each other way too much.
A criminal case in Massachusetts highlights how both those behaviors ––thoughtless actions and texting out every thought in one’s head –– can come back to haunt. Please talk to your kids about this.
In July 2014, a young man named Conrad Roy committed suicide by hooking up a hose to a portable generator and snaking it inside the cab of his truck. Conrad, 18, was a troubled kid who had been under mental health treatment for nearly 5 years. He had tried to commit suicide in 2013 and was hospitalized. His longtime girlfriend was a pretty, young 17-year-old named Michelle Carter.
Investigators found extensive discussion of suicide between Conrad and Michelle, documented in voluminous text messaging records. Conrad seemed to almost constantly talk about taking his own life. Michelle, according to texts contained in court documents, seemed to encourage him at every step and mock him when he failed to follow through.
On July 12, 2014 at about 4:30 a.m. Michelle wrote to Conrad about his destructive thoughts. “So I guess you aren’t going to do it then, all that (planning) for nothing.”
Conrad wrote back, “I really don’t know what I’m waiting for … But I have everything lined up.”
Michelle answered, “It’s probably the best time now because everyone sleeping…Just go somewhere in your truck. If you don’t do it now you’re never going to do it.” She cryptically added, “And u can say you’ll do it tomorrow but you probably won’t.”
The next day, July 13, 2014, Conrad loaded his portable contraption into his truck and headed for an isolated section of a K-mart parking lot. Investigators discovered that while he was locked inside waiting for the carbon monoxide to take his life he had been talking on the telephone with Michelle. Two separate telephone calls that lasted nearly an hour and a half. At one point Conrad panicked and got out of the truck. His girlfriend urged him to “get back in” and get it over with.
Conrad’s body was discovered by police the next morning, his cell phone by his side. Even then Michelle kept up her incriminating texting. To her friend, Samantha Boardman, she wrote, “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 could have easily stopped him or called the police but I didn’t.”
“Sam, (the police) read my messages with him I’m done. His family will hate me and I can go to jail.”
Prosecutors took the case to a grand jury and ultimately to juvenile court where they charged Michelle with manslaughter for encouraging the suicide. For the last two years her defense team has worked to have the charges dismissed arguing that Michelle was miles away from the death scene and that while her text messages were provocative they were protected speech under the First Amendment. Their final attempt failed.
In its definitive ruling the Massachusetts Supreme Court concluded, “Although not physically present when the victim committed suicide, the constant communication with him by text messages and by telephone leading up to and during the suicide made the defendants presence at least virtual.”
Later this month Michelle, now 19 and out on bail, is expected to enter a plea at her first pretrial hearing.
This case is full of “what if’s” and “if only’s”. What if Michelle had warned Conrad’s parents about his state of mind? If only she had hung up with him and called the police.
The case is also full of important life lessons for young people. Chief among them, how bad judgment, exercised over a relatively short period of time, can ruin –– and even take –– a life.
It is clear we’ve lost the art of meaningful face-to-face conversation. It has been buried by the Internet, social media and the ever present tapping sound of keyboards. That laser focus so many people have on their computer screen these days can supplant common sense.
When a person speaks of suicide it is not time to text a response. It is time to speak with the loved ones to whom the person may not be fully confiding. It is time to get that person some serious mental health help.
Why didn’t Michelle Carter understand this? How many other young people might do the same thing? Have a conversation with your kids, please.