Constitutional Law Criminal Law

With “I Love You Now Die” Erin Lee Carr and HBO Bring Something You Rarely See in True Crime Docs: Good Lawyering!

For those of you unfamiliar with the Michelle Carter case or the HBO documentary “I Love You Now Die” about the case, let me set out HBO’s description of the case for you to catch up [SPOILERS ALERT!!]:

“In July 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy died by suicide in his car at a parking lot in Fairhaven, Mass. Police soon discovered a series of alarming text messages from his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, that seemed to encourage him to kill himself. This discovery sparked sensational headlines nationwide, leading to a trial that raised difficult questions about technology, social media and mental health, while asking if one person can be held responsible for the suicide of another. In 2012, teens Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy fell in love. They lived hours apart and met in person no more than five times, but exchanged thousands of texts over a two-year period. After Roy was found dead in his car in July 2014, what appeared to be a standard case of suicide by carbon-monoxide intoxication took a shocking turn when investigators discovered alarming text messages on his phone. Carter, 17 at the time, had urged Roy to kill himself, even after he had second thoughts and removed himself from his car.

Directed by Erin Lee Carr (HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal and Mommy Dead and DearestI Love You, Now Die explores the complicated relationship between Carter and Roy, drawing on some of the thousands of texts they exchanged over two years to chronicle their courtship and its tragic consequences. Featuring unprecedented access to the families, friends and communities that were forever changed by this unusual case, the documentary explores the changing nature of the justice system today, following a story that has wider implications for society at large, both online and in real life. The film presents a well-rounded look at a bizarre tale that was a deadly convergence of mental illness, loneliness, pop culture and technology.

In July 2017, Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of Roy. In August 2017, she was found guilty and began her 15-month prison sentence in February 2019, following a failed appeal. I Love You, Now Die includes footage from Michelle Carter’s trial, where the filmmakers had the only camera allowed in court and supplied the pool camera for this historic case. It also features interviews with key individuals in the story, including: Conrad Roy’s immediate family; Joseph Cataldo, Michelle Carter’s defense attorney; Dr. Peter Breggin, an expert witness for the defense; police detectives; and journalists who covered the case extensively.”

So first of all, Erin Lee Carr does an amazing job with the story, showing both sides of the argument and giving us enough background about the two young people in the middle of the story to get a better understanding of this tragedy. Carr is on a roll, having released an autobiography and another great HBO documentary “At the Heart of Gold” about the sexual abuse of US Olympic female gymnasts by Larry Nassar, the teams long-time doctor. It makes for compelling television.

But for me, one of the great takeaways I got from the film is that for the first time in recent memory, a true-crime documentary featured a lawyer who knew what he was doing and did it competently throughout the piece. Joseph Cataldo, Michelle Carter’s principal trial lawyer, is a prominent local criminal defense lawyer. This is not Cataldo’s first high-profile case. He previously represented Terry Glynn, former Patriots football player, who was accused of assault. But this case garnered national attention as it showed the reach that texting and social media have made upon our lives.

When the case first made the papers, I felt that Ms. Carter should not have been charged. Massachusetts has no law or penal code that makes assisting a suicide a crime. So the prosecutors had to charge her with involuntary manslaughter through reckless conduct. The key issue was that Mr. Roy had apparently gotten out of his truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide and had called Ms. Carter at that time, and she told him to “Get back in the truck” While there were lots of text messages leading up to and during the suicide attempt, there were actually no texts from Roy that he had gotten out of the truck nor were there any texts from Carter urging him to get back into the truck. All there was in evidence was a single text from Carter to a girlfriend AFTER the suicide where she says Roy got out of the truck and she told him to get back in. She also says its all her fault and she could have stopped it if she had just said “I Love You.” But the State had painted Ms. Carter as a narcissistic, grandiose teenager who was desperate for attention. They introduced numerous texts with false claims and wild fantasies. Why was this one text then so reliable? More importantly, in my opinion, it is a basic principle in American jurisprudence that criminal statutes have to be narrowly construed and that no activity is a crime if not defined by statute. This is so to make sure that no one is jailed for conduct they cannot reasonably expect to be deemed criminal.

So I was confident Ms. Carter would be acquitted when the case came up for trial. Oh well. Wrong again. But the loss was not attributable to Cataldo, Carter’s lawyer. The film shows him to be a passionate and committed advocate for Ms. Carter. He makes it clear that her conduct was perhaps immoral and horrifically poor judgment, but it was not criminal.

His first key decision was to go “non-jury” and try the case before a judge. While juries are often a criminally accused’s last best hope, expecting a jury to take the emotion out of the case and listen to a reasoned legal argument about why this is not a crime is too big an ask of twelve ordinary citizens. This case was perfect for a non-jury trial. After all the real issue being tried was not what happened but whether the actions of the accused fit into the definition of involuntary manslaughter. That, in the end, is an academic exercise.

Joseph Cataldo with Michelle Carter. Photo by (Matt West/The Boston Herald via AP, Pool)

Cataldo treated it that way, by trying the case in a calm well-structured approach. Hedging his bets, he also put on a forensic psychiatrist to explain how troubled Ms. Carter and Mr. Roy both were to explain that Ms. Carter did not think she was doing anything wrong but was in fact helping Roy achieve a goal he had texted and spoken about endlessly – taking his life. I do think he is likely second-guessing his decision not to have Ms. Carter take the stand but that could have also turned out poorly in light of her emotional instability.

Instead, he argued that this was an unconstitutional expansion of a crime for activity not proscribed by law; he also argued that it violated Ms. Carter’s Free Speech rights. He made it into a legal argument and not a criminal trial. He also said not a word to the press during the entire trial. He walked out of the courthouse each time, stood by the phalanx of reporters to address them and then each time said, “As this is a pending criminal trial, I will not make any comment.” He kept his client and his client’s family out of the press as well. Not many lawyers would do this in the face of twenty TV cameras. but it was the absolutely right thing to do.

So often when watching these true crime docs, I yell at the screen at the incompetent or inexperienced defense lawyers who bungle a case right before our very eyes. It was refreshing and rewarding to finally see fine, dedicated lawyering on the accused’s behalf. In courts all around the country, lawyers are in courtrooms fighting battles such as these and getting no recognition – and some very little pay – for their efforts. I hope the documentary achieves the goal of educating the public about the value of competent effective counsel on both sides of the aisle.

Massachusetts’ highest appellate court has upheld the guilty verdict rendered by the judge and the case is apparently making its way to the United State Supreme Court. But win or lose, Mr. Cataldo held up the finest standards of criminal defense and gave Ms. Carter his all. We need to see more of that on TV.

Follow me on Twitter @oscarmichelen

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