What Happens If You Kill With Words?
Earlier this year, a young woman from a small town in Massachusetts stood trial for homicide. The judges shocking verdict answered the question of whether speech alone was enough to make her guilty of his death.
BY Jesse Barron | Dec 7, 2017 | Culture
The text messages started the night her son went missing. Lynn Roy saw the ﬁrst one around 10.30pm on July 12, 2014: “Do you know where he is?” She saw the second the next day: “Did you call the police yet?” Then a third: “Any news?” The sender, Michelle Carter, was familiar to Lynn as a girl her son, Conrad, texted. She guessed they were friends. It turned out Michelle was right to be worried: that afternoon, July 13, police found Conrad in the parking lot of the Kmart on Route 6 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, asphyxiated by the carbon monoxide from a water pump in the cab of his F-250.
A few days later, Conrad’s father, Conrad Roy II, discovered a spiralbound journal at his house. Inside, his son had written down the passwords to his iPhone and laptop, along with suicide notes. One was addressed to Michelle, whom Conrad II knew as a girl his son had met years ago, on vacation. “Keep strong in tough times,” it read. “Our songs, listen to them and remember me.” Another said: “Dad, I’m sorry I wasn’t the boy you wanted.” Conrad II was a salvage-boat operator, which entailed frequent two-week stints away from home, including one that began the day after Conrad was born. Lately, relations between father and son had been fraught. That February, after a ﬁght, Conrad II had been arrested for punching his son in the face and sending him to the hospital.
The Roys lived in Mattapoisett, a harbour town of 6,000 on the state’s south coast. The week after Conrad died, they held his wake at a local funeral parlour. In the receiving line, a blonde 17-year-old girl waited patiently with her mother and introduced herself to Lynn as Michelle Carter. Michelle came from a suburb called Plainville an hour north. Lynn had never been there. It was landlocked, Waspy.
Not long after the funeral, Conrad’s little sister, Camdyn, received an email from Michelle. “Conrad did not kill himself because of bullying like everyone assumes,” Michelle wrote. “I know the real reasons.” She pasted in several messages that Conrad had written her. “I pray every night that this is a bad dream and ill [sic] wake up feeling happy and proud of myself and a good kid again,” one message said. “I see the world as a horrible place with a bunch of horrible people. There’s a shortage of good genuine people like you and me who care.” Camdyn showed the email to Lynn.
Lynn recognized the tone. It sounded like her son. He’d had a hard time ever since she and Conrad II had separated, three years earlier. He was getting into ﬁghts at school. He refused to get out of bed. A Catholic, he thought that maybe God was testing him. But the week before July 12, he’d seemed better. He’d been talking to Lynn about the future. The morning of the suicide, she had walked with him on Horseneck Beach.
“I wish things could be different, but you need to know that it is not your fault,” Michelle wrote Lynn in an email on July 25.
In Massachusetts, an unattended death is treated as an unsolved crime, and it is standard for police to work the case, usually in a cursory capacity. Lynn mentioned the involvement of a detective to Michelle, and Michelle expressed hope that the police might turn something up. “Any news from the detectives?” In August, Michelle’s mother, Gail, texted Lynn, “I think about you, your family, and Conrad every day. My heart breaks for all of you, as well as for Michelle, who loved Conrad as much as a 17-year-old girl could.”
One night, Lynn dreamed that Michelle had helped Conrad’s best friend, Tom Gammell, through a depression. It was a nice dream; when she woke up, she texted Michelle about it. Conrad had been dead for a month, and Lynn accepted that Michelle had been closer to her son than she’d realised. Eighteen-year-olds hid things from their parents. Against the violent shock of the summer of 2014, his love affair with Michelle hardly registered as a major omission.
When school started in September, everyone at King Philip High, in Wrentham, saw that Michelle Carter was broken up over the tragic death of her boyfriend. On the 13th—the day after what would have been Conrad’s 19th birthday—she held a fundraiser for suicide prevention in his honour. Girls surrounded her, picked her up to pose for photos. Privately, some of them were confused. “Before the suicide,” one of her soccer teammates told me, “he was never her boyfriend—he was just ‘my friend.’"
If Michelle had a deﬁning characteristic, it was a cheery relentlessness. If you were kind to her, she would thank you so much it was confusing. If she upset you, she would apologise 50 times, then apologise for apologising. Not quite part of any group, she sometimes overcompensated, lavishing attention in sudden intense waves. Outside of school, Michelle kept to herself. “People walked all over her,” her friend Evan Andrews said. Freshman year, she lost so much weight that she quit the softball team. “Michelle wanted the conﬁdence she saw others having,” he added.
The popular girls had jobs at the ice-cream parlour and driver’s licences. Michelle got her licence late, which contributed to a sense that she was younger than her age. “She was just very naïve,” her King Philip classmate Emily Shain told me. “My impression was that her parents raised her sheltered.”
A few months after Conrad’s suicide, while Michelle was waiting for her dad to pick her up after school, a man approached and introduced himself as a police detective. Michelle is 1.62m and the detective towered over her. He had reviewed Conrad’s phone, and said he knew she’d been talking to Conrad the night of his death. “Until he stopped having contact with anybody,” the detective said.
Michelle’s voice was lowish and polite, ready to assist. “He told me there was no one to help him,” she said. “I was talking to him on the phone the night before the 12th, and the phone, like, hung up. I didn’t really think anything of it.”
The detective said he had a search warrant for her phone.
“You’re taking my phone?” Michelle asked. The picture on the lock screen was a photo of Conrad. “Do I get it back? Can I write down your number or something?”
The detective told her that wouldn’t be necessary.
David Carter pulled up outside. He drove his daughter 15 minutes south, with the detective following behind, into a quiet neighbourhood of Plainville that abuts Witch Pond. The Carters’ house was a three- bedroom on a standard-issue cul de sac. Within an hour, Michelle had volunteered the passwords to her laptop (“fuckingfuck47”) and to her phone.
The text messages recovered by the state ﬁlled 317 pages. Lynn Roy told me that Conrad and Michelle saw each other no more than ﬁve times. Those 317 pages contained the whole story of their relationship.
It began in February 2012. Michelle, then 15, went to Naples, Florida, to visit her grandparents. Conrad was visiting his great-aunt a few doors down. He had short brown hair and played card games. Michelle was baby-faced with a gold cross necklace. They rode their bikes to the beach. They watched alligators trundle onto the streets. When they got home, Camdyn told Lynn, “He met someone.”
In Massachusetts, Michelle and Conrad would not have crossed paths. Kids in Plainville thought of kids on the south coast as gritty, an impression not unrelated to the racial makeup: Plainville was white as snow, while the south coast was “diverse,” as the Plainville kids had learned to put it. “We don’t even play them in sports,” one of Michelle’s teammates told me.
Michelle’s parents had good suburban jobs. David, the son of a bank vice-president, was the sales manager for a forklift supplier. Gail staged interiors for real estate agents. Conrad’s dad worked with his hands—when US Airways Flight 1549 made its “miracle landing” on the Hudson River in 2009, it was Conrad II who helped tow the plane to shore—and Lynn Roy was a nurse. Whereas Conrad II wore jeans and work shirts, David wore a jacket and tie. Gail was tan and blonde in sweater sets. They came off to Conrad’s grandmother as “inﬂuential, because of how they dress.”
When Michelle went back to King Philip that autumn, she told people she had a new friend on the south coast, which sounded a little exotic.
That October, Conrad tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol. He threw up a deep red stream. After he came around, he texted the girl he’d met in Naples. “Do you even care what’s happening to me?”
It was like a test, and Michelle passed. “Oh my god,” she wrote, “is this my fault?”
To be worried over by a girl is one of the greatest pleasures a teenage boy can lay claim to. Conrad must have felt it, because Michelle’s response elicited further confessions. He said his stomach was fucked from the Tylenol; she said her liver was fucked from her eating disorder. He said he saw the devil in the hospital; she said the devil crawled into bed with her and told her she was going to hell.
That autumn was rough on Michelle. While playing softball on a travel team earlier in the summer, she had gotten close to a girl from Bellingham named Alice Felzmann. They became inseparable. During a team trip to Montreal, while the others went to eat, they had dinner together, just the two of them. Alice thought Michelle was funny, kind—everything. When they got back from Montreal, Michelle stayed over at Alice’s at least once a week. They went for walks, swam in Michelle’s backyard pool, and snuck out to play basketball in the driveway at three in the morning. Then, out of nowhere, Alice stopped returning Michelle’s texts. She wouldn’t say why. “This whole Alice situation is making me depressed,” Michelle told Conrad. He said she shouldn’t let it get to her.
“You want to have sex,” he asked a week later.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Okay let’s do it.”
“Not now,” Michelle said. “In the future.”
The next autumn, Conrad told her he was running away to California. He meant alone. “Obviously I’m gonna move with you,” Michelle texted. “That’s like 583829 miles away from here I can’t be that far away from you.”
“Why?” Conrad said.
Michelle wrote: “We would change our lives and be happy.”
In the winter of 2014, Conrad was suspended from school. They accused him of ﬁghting. Thinking it might help to be around someone close to him, Conrad went to visit Tom Gammell at Fitchburg State. The boys were tight, but their relationship followed narrow lines: they were baseball teammates and played Madden together.
The visit was a bust. “I haven’t slept good,” he texted Lynn. “I’m feeling anxious I’m feeling down. I don’t know why I can’t just be normal.” He texted Michelle: “I wasn’t comfortable and I’m feeling depressed again, and feels like everything's switched around.”
That June, Michelle went to McLean Hospital in Belmont to be treated for anorexia. She told Conrad that he should join her, to get help for his depression. Being admitted to McLean, she said, “would be so good for you and we would get thru our issues together. Think about it. You aren’t gonna get better on your own, you know it no matter how many times you tell yourself you are. You need professional help like me, people who know how to treat it and ﬁx it.”
Conrad didn’t take her up on it. Three weeks later, he told her he was suicidal.
“We should be like Romeo and Juliet,” he said.
“I’d love to be your Juliet.”
“But you know what happens at the end.”
“OH YEAH FUCK NO!” Michelle wrote back. “WE ARE NOT DYING. That’s not funny. I thought you were trying to be romantic.”
“I know I tricked ya,” Conrad said.
On June 29, Michelle began to conspire with him. “What about hanging yourself or stabbing yourself?” she said. The next day, she asked: “Why don’t you just drink bleach?” Conrad eagerly participated. He found websites that gave you the odds on different methods. “Carbon monoxide or helium gas. I want to deprive myself of oxygen,” he said. “I WANT TO DIE.” He worried about leaving his family. Michelle said that if her kid sister died, she would be “extremely upset for a week or two” but would get over it. “Are you gonna leave a note for me?” she asked.
On July 3, Conrad told Michelle that he was going to do it. Then he was awake the next morning. She was furious; she thought he was jerking her around. “YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF!” She gave him other ideas. A gunshot to the head had a 99 percent chance of working. Hanging, 89 percent. “Carbon monoxide is the best option,” she told him, “if you fall asleep in your car while it’s running.” Conrad worried that rescuers might inhale the CO and get sick. Michelle said it wasn’t a problem. Conrad said he was doing circles in his mind about where to go. What if someone found him before he died?
“You better not be bullshitting me and saying you’re gonna do this and then purposely get caught,” Michelle said. She asked whether, when he died, she could say she was his girlfriend. Conrad said okay.
On the evening of July 12, he pulled his truck out of Lynn’s driveway with a water pump he’d collected from his grandfather’s shed. He pulled into the lot behind Kmart. It was dusk. He spoke to Michelle on the phone twice. Late the next afternoon, Conrad II called Lynn. “There’s yellow tape around our son’s truck,” he said.
No recordings of either call between Michelle and Conrad existed, but the detective located an account of them, in Michelle’s own words. Two months after Conrad’s death, she sent her friend Samantha Boardman what looked like a confession. “I could have stopped him,” the text read. “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in. I could have stopped him but I fucking didn't [sic]. All I had to say was I love you.”
In February 2015, the state of Massachusetts indicted Michelle Carter for involuntary manslaughter, a homicide charge that carries a maximum 20- year sentence. The Carters retained the services of an attorney named Joseph Cataldo, known in the community for having gotten serious charges against King Philip students dismissed, including a bomb threat and a rape.
The homicide trial began this past June at the Bristol County Juvenile Court in Taunton, Massachusetts. I had been covering the case since the pretrial hearings last December, when only a handful of reporters clustered together on the frozen concrete, grousing about why they couldn’t be assigned a murder in Florida. On June 5, the ﬁrst day of the trial, I drove from my apartment in New Bedford to Taunton. The case was on the radio, and when I arrived, police had reserved parking spaces across the street from the courthouse for the satellite trucks.
The woman who would appear on the news that night looked nothing like the girl who’d been indicted. At her arraignment, Michelle’s face was ﬂeshy and undeﬁned. At the trial, two years later, she looked booth-tan and thin, with blue-grey eyes, full lips and dark, mobile eyebrows that stood out against her blonde hair. She wore a white quilted car coat and walked on heels down the hallway to Courtroom Three. “Is that her?” whispered a TV producer. Michelle bit her lower lip, yanked the door open and went inside.
Throughout the spring, she was out on USD2,500 cash bail, and opinions about her proliferated up and down New England. “I did security work all over North Africa and the Middle East,” said the president of the Northeast Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, where Conrad got his captain’s license. “I saw what Saddam Hussein was doing to people. Photographs, bodies, body parts. This is the most—I almost want to say a satanic thing. I’m not a religious guy, but if there’s evil, that was evil.”
Christine Monahan, who had played soccer with Michelle, waited tables at a pub near King Philip this past summer. “It’s insane what she did. Nobody in town likes her anymore,” she said. “Michelle was obsessed with me for a while. I always felt she loved me way more than I loved her.”
The bartender at the Red Rooster had been following the case on Facebook. “If that was my kid,” she told me, “I’d kill her myself.”
In her kitchen in Wrentham, Emily Shain speculated that a mental-health issue wasn’t being addressed. Even so, she said, how could someone do that? “The whole thing comes down to whether she feels guilty,” Emily concluded.
The court had prepared a 13-page juror questionnaire. Question 43 asked, “Do you believe a person may commit a crime through words alone?”
Prospective jurors had assembled when Cataldo executed a surprising reversal: Michelle waived her right to a jury. The decision placed all the power with Judge Lawrence Moniz, a former high school English teacher.
“Are you doing this of your own free will?” Moniz asked Michelle.
Michelle looked at Cataldo.
“Yes, Your Honour,” she said.
Once the jurors had been sent home, the pool videographer persuaded Moniz to let him relocate from the aisle, which had offered only an obstructed view of the defendant, to the empty jury box. He remained there for the rest of the proceedings, his camera angled perfectly to catch Michelle’s exposed face.
To convict Michelle of involuntary manslaughter, assistant district attorney Katie Rayburn had to convince Moniz that a reasonable person would have known that her actions could cause substantial injury or death. Rayburn is 43, smart, and verbally quick, with pale skin and cherrywood-coloured hair. “She’s got juice,” the courthouse lawyers in the row behind me whispered. “She’ll be a judge.”
Adept at the long game, Rayburn favoured streams of narrative whose purposes, obscured at ﬁrst, emerged much later in revelatory ﬂashes. Examining Lynn Roy, the state began with Conrad’s suicide attempt in 2012. This seemed at ﬁrst to help Cataldo’s case, since it established that Conrad was planning to die regardless of Michelle. Later in the trial, Rayburn landed her point. When Conrad had attempted suicide that ﬁrst time, he had called a friend and was saved. Two years later, under similar circumstances, who was at the other end of the phone line?
Relying in part on the text messages collected from Michelle’s phone, Rayburn and her co-counsel, Maryclare Flynn, described her as a lonely, calculating girl who killed an ambivalent boy to win the attention of her peers. Rayburn said her witnesses, Michelle’s former classmates, didn’t “have time for her.” Her implication was that they had responsibilities and that Michelle—privileged but unpopular—lived in fantasies bred by luxurious idleness. In the texts, she treated Samantha Boardman like a best friend. On the stand, Sam and Lexie Eblan testiﬁed they were each other’s.
Lexie was asked whether she ever saw Michelle outside of school. “Did you guys ever hang out? Go out on a Friday night?”
“I can’t remember a time,” Lexie said.
Sam and Lexie slept over at Michelle’s house the week of the suicide. Did any particular memory stick out about that night?
“Not really,” Sam said.
Rayburn homed in on the events of July 10. At three o’clock that afternoon, Michelle texted Sam that Conrad was “missing like they don’t know where he is.” Less than three hours later, she texted Lexie: “Conrad’s missing, they can’t ﬁnd him anywhere.”
But on July 10, Conrad wasn’t missing yet. Nine minutes before Michelle texted Sam, Conrad told her that he was headed to the store. 30 minutes later, he texted: “I love you btw.”
That evening and the following day, Michelle continued to write parallel storylines. “Is there any way a portable generator can kill you somehow?” Michelle asked Sam at 5:30. Around 11 the next night, Lexie asked Michelle if Conrad had been found. Three minutes later, Michelle texted Conrad: “Let me know when you’re gonna do it.” Two minutes after that, she replied to Lexie: “No not yet. I’m losing all hope that he’s even still alive.”
Rayburn called the messages that Michelle sent to Sam and Lexie on July 10 and 11 the “dry run.” Because Michelle’s goal was to get attention, Rayburn argued, she wanted to conﬁrm that Conrad’s death would draw it.
On July 12, he was wavering. “You just need to do it Conrad or I’m gonna get you help,” Michelle texted.
“I’m gonna do it today,” Conrad said.
“Do you promise.”
“I promise babe. Where do I go?”
“You can’t break a promise. Go in a quiet parking lot.”
At 6:28 that night, Conrad called Michelle. Their phones connected for 42 minutes and 46 seconds. At 7:12, Michelle called Conrad. Their phones connected for 46 minutes and 35 seconds.
Rayburn noted that it takes about 15 minutes to die from carbon-monoxide poisoning, and that Conrad’s phone was recovered from the truck with a dead battery. Therefore, Conrad must have died during the second call.
The next morning, Michelle texted him: “Did you do something??! Conrad, I love you so much please tell me this is a joke. I’m so sorry I didn’t think you were being serious. I need you please answer me. I’m gonna get you help and you’re gonna get better we will make it thru this.” Conrad had been dead for 12 hours. The purpose of this worried-sounding message, Rayburn told Moniz, was “covering it up.”
Two days later, Michelle texted Sam a new version of the story: “I was talking to him while he killed himself, I heard him cry in pain. I should have known I should have did something.” Sam wrote back: “It’s not ur fault.”
Rayburn brought a number of the spectators to tears with her closing statement. “Did he continue to research suicide? Yes. He had questions; he was working through things,” she said. “We don’t get a clean slate every day. The stuff that happened the days before, we carry it with us. But every day, we get a new opportunity to start again.”
In the photos taken at the scene, red spots covered Conrad’s nose and mouth, telltale signs of carbon-monoxide poisoning. He wore sunglasses and one of the BOSTON STRONG T-shirts that were being sold at that time in New England to raise money for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Save the lethal slackness of his neck, he could have been napping, the scene was so mundane. It was hard to believe these kids understood that when you killed yourself, you were dead and you didn’t come back.
When I met Joseph Cataldo at his office last December, six months before the trial began, he was wearing skull-and-crossbones cufflinks that rhymed with the paintings of clipper ships in his reception area. Cataldo told me he viewed the case as a virtually unprecedented overcharge. “This is what happens when you try to prosecute a suicide,” he said. “You try to ﬁnd a villain. I’m human, too. But the issue is not whether her behaviour was proper, reasonable. The bottom line is: did she cause his death?”
The second week of trial, Cataldo opened with an inversion of the state’s story: a boy named Conrad dragged a girl named Michelle into a suicidal maelstrom. Cataldo quoted Internet searches from Conrad’s computer: “suicide by cop,” “ways to die by drowning.” He reminded us that the alleged criminal had been nowhere near the alleged crime scene.
Cataldo challenged the legitimacy of the charges. Massachusetts has no law criminalising suicide. Being an accomplice to a lawful activity could not be a crime. And while free speech has certain limits—one cannot make “true threats”—Michelle did not threaten Conrad. Cataldo had spent two years on the case, and one of his motions to dismiss had reached the state’s highest court.
At trial, he produced a single signiﬁcant witness. On the morning of June 12, Peter Breggin, a short, plump 81-year-old doctor who frequently provides expert testimony in cases involving psychopharmacology, walked up the aisle, showed himself through the little wooden gate and settled onto the witness stand. “Good morning, Your Honour.”
Breggin proposed a theory that he called involuntary intoxication. At one time, he said, Michelle Carter had been “the most loved person anybody had ever met.” She always wanted to help people. When she was helping, she was “being Michelle on a very intense level.” In April 2014, a doctor prescribed her ﬁve milligrams of the antidepressant Celexa. The drug, Breggin testiﬁed, contorted her helping nature, until she convinced herself that abetting Conrad’s suicide was itself a form of help.
Throughout Cataldo’s examination, Rayburn sat with a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders on the table in front of her. When it was time for her cross-examination, she picked up the 1.3kg dark-purple book and asked Breggin to show her the section on involuntary intoxication.
“Would you give me the page?” Breggin asked.
Rayburn repeated her request.
“That’s a legal term,” Breggin said.
“But it’s not in the DSM?” Moniz asked.
“No,” Breggin said.
“Good,” Moniz said. “Next question.”
(Breggin later asserted that involuntary intoxication was based on a number of clinical conditions that could be found in the DSM.)
Rayburn’s cross-examination painted Breggin as a self-sabotaging enthusiast for dates, like an eschatologist who pins down the end times a little too ﬁrmly. Delving into Michelle’s prescription history, Rayburn forced him to adjust and readjust his timeline in open court. The date of involuntary intoxication, July 2, became “a period of time around July second.”
His answers dissolved into koans. After Rayburn referred to a damaging text Michelle sent Sam—“they read my messages with him, I’m done. His family will hate me and I could go to jail”—Breggin said: “Yes! And that is a very good demonstration of her innocence.” Spectators in the courtroom were laughing at him.
After watching Breggin on the stand, I found it hard to imagine anyone trusting his expertise. Why had the defence chosen him? Michelle and her parents declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, but a character statement that David Carter would later submit to the court suggested an answer. “I am convinced the medication she was taking affected her mental state which made it difficult for her to distinguish between right and wrong.”
In the same way Michelle explained Conrad’s death to the Roys, Celexa explained Michelle’s actions to the Carters. “Involuntary intoxication” was another term for adolescence—the external force that strikes your child’s life and redirects it beyond your control. “He was only a teen,” Lynn Roy told me one evening this past summer while we sat in her friend’s backyard in Dartmouth. “A baby. He was vulnerable. Teenage boys get easily persuaded, easily manipulated by girls. Because they can’t show their feelings.”
On June 16, the day of the verdict, there was not an empty seat in the courtroom. Michelle wore a pale pink blouse stencilled with water lilies. When Moniz took the bench, he announced immediately that the state had not proved that the text messages caused Conrad’s death.
Cataldo set his jaw and put his arm around Michelle. Michelle whispered something to Cataldo. Then she covered her face with her hands and appeared to weep.
But Moniz changed course. “Approximately 200 years ago,” he said, “an inmate at the Hampshire Jail was charged with causing the murder of the man in the next cell.” Cataldo’s mouth opened and his eyes narrowed. Michelle collected herself.
The man who killed himself in 1815 was a convicted murderer named Jewett. The night before he was to be hanged publicly, Jewett hanged himself in his cell. Guards later told a jury that the petty thief in the next cell had persuaded Jewett so relentlessly—why let the hangman have his fee?—that he bore responsibility for the suicide. Instructing his jury, the judge in the case told them not to consider Jewett’s impending death as a mitigation of the thief’s crime. “The culprit, though under sentence of death, is cheered by hope to the last moment of his existence,” the judge had said.
Moniz derived the moral: “Whether Conrad would have taken his life at another time does not control or even inform this court’s decision.”
Knowing that Conrad was in the truck, Moniz said, Michelle took no action. “She did not call the police or Mr Roy’s family. She did not notify his mother or his sister, even though just several days before that she had requested their phone numbers. And ﬁnally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’” Consequently, he said, Michelle’s “failure to act, where she had a self-created duty, constituted each and all wanton and reckless conduct.” As for Breggin, Moniz said, “The court did not ﬁnd that analysis credible.”
Moniz asked Michelle to stand. Cataldo put a steadying hand on her shoulder. Moniz pronounced her guilty. On August 3, he sentenced Michelle to 15 months. A stay of the sentence allows her to remain free pending appeal.
Though Moniz did not mention it, the jury in the Jewett case had voted to acquit. But Moniz had something that those jurors lacked: a written record. He had before him a member of the generation that grew up with digital carbon paper beneath their adolescence.
After the sentencing, I met Evan Andrews at a coffee shop in Norfolk. He wore a blue polo shirt and spoke cautiously. He became close to Michelle after the indictment, he told me, and spent many hours at her house during the trial. “Michelle and I are so tight because we’ve both been through shit,” he said. “She helped me come out to my parents.”
He told me that he and Michelle had “gone in depth” about the night Conrad died but also said he didn’t want to speak for his best friend. “What I think,” he said, “the vibe that I get, it was not as malicious as the DA makes it seem. ‘She ordered him to get back in.’ That’s not Michelle. I can’t picture her screaming at somebody.” I asked how he understood why she did what she did. “It’s not just medicine,” he said. “It’s anxiety, her eating disorder.”
At one point during our conversation, I offered that a number of people had described Michelle as needy. Evan bristled. “Not needy,” he said. “In need. Is that different?”
That her best friend could not imagine Michelle as complicit in a homicide did not, of course, invalidate the state’s case. But there was an element of Rayburn’s argument that disturbed me. The idea that there had been a premeditated scheme, complete with dry runs and cover-ups, seemed dubious.
Between June 29 and July 12, Conrad toed the edge of the cliff and backed away. The night of July 9, he was ready to go with a generator.
Michelle asked: “How long till you die :(.”
Conrad said he didn’t know. “Could be in 5/30 minutes.”
Three minutes passed. Michelle wrote: “Wait so this is serious right like the thing is on and you’re gonna die soon?” At 5:32 the next morning: “Conrad.” At 8:41: “Conrad please answer me right now you’re scaring me.” Was that a cover-up? It seemed more plausible that the suicide ﬂickered as a possibility without settling into reality.
Michelle compounded this impression by threading her texts to Conrad with ﬁction. Because nothing like this had ever happened to her, she had to build the framework from the materials at hand, culled from white-teen culture. In July 2013, Cory Monteith, a star of the TV show Glee, had overdosed in a hotel room. His co-star and real-life girlfriend, Lea Michele, led the cast in a tribute episode. Michelle texted Conrad word for word from it.
On July 7, ﬁve days before Conrad’s suicide, Michelle went to see The Fault in Our Stars. At the movie’s climax, a terminal-cancer patient, dying in his Jeep, calls his girlfriend for help. Afterward, Michelle texted Conrad: “I literally can’t stop crying lol what’s up with you?”
What makes these allusions uncanny is Conrad’s apparent unfamiliarity with the source material. Like many sad young men, he professed to believe that television and social media were turning his generation apathetic. A day after Michelle texted a long unattributed quote from Lea Michele, Conrad wrote: “I think it’s getting really out of hand, especially with all these shows and the media is ruining what culture is supposed to be like.”
The dissonance caught my attention. It implied not that Michelle was successfully writing some script in which Conrad was a character but that he was incommensurate with the intensity Michelle projected on him. I came to feel that a shape existed in her mind that predated him.
I re-read all the evidence from the beginning, and thought I saw the shadow of another story. The week before Conrad’s suicide, Michelle’s mind was somewhere else. “Do you remember me being best friends with a girl named Alice?” she texted a classmate, Emmy Lambalot. Michelle texted Livy Mosolgo about Alice, too: “I’m obsessed with her like idk [sic] how to stop. Every love song or whatever, it’s her I think about.” To another friend, she said that a therapist had told her she was “going through a grieving process.” She said: “I just have to ﬁnd a way to get closure.” Meanwhile, Conrad was towing barges off Menemsha with his father.
In August, I called Alice. I said that she sounded like an important person in Michelle’s life. Alice agreed to meet me at a Panera in Franklin, coincidentally in the same shopping centre where Cataldo has his office. When I got there, she was with her mother, Kelly Felzmann, a sturdy woman who works in the cafeteria at Bellingham High.
Kelly did most of the talking. In the summer of 2012, she said, when the two girls met, Alice was depressed. “I personally think Michelle picked up on that,” Kelly said. She claimed to have disliked Michelle immediately. She compared her to Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver. “Super nice. No kid is that nice.”
Kelly felt Michelle was a bad inﬂuence. The girls were texting in the middle of the night. She conﬁscated Alice’s phone. Every morning, Kelly’s husband brought it with him to work. One day, he noticed that Alice had switched it with an old one. “Now she’s grounded,” Kelly said.
By that autumn, Alice was spending too much time on Facebook with Michelle. Kelly thought Michelle was aggressive, the way she “latched on.” She forbade the girls to speak. Alice made a secret Facebook account under another name. Kelly found out. “You’re going to end all ties,” she remembers telling Alice. This time Alice obliged.
An envelope arrived for Alice a year later with an unknown return address. Kelly opened it. Inside were three handwritten pages that Kelly believed were from Michelle—a sort of love letter, it sounded like. Kelly hid the letter from Alice, and gave it to her only after the indictment. (Another source conﬁrmed the existence of the letter, but Kelly and Alice declined to show it to me.)
Later, Michelle would speak about her friendship with Alice in romantic terms. She said Alice was her ﬁrst kiss. I mentioned this to the Felzmanns, and showed Alice the text about the love songs. She said their relationship was never physical. Kelly said Michelle made it up.
I asked Alice if she had strong emotions watching her former best friend on trial.
Kelly sat without uncrossing her arms.
“No,” Alice said.
Conrad’s last possible point of exit was the phone call Michelle made at 7:12, when she told him to get back in the truck. That call ended at 7:58. According to the state, then, by 7:58, Michelle must have known that Conrad was dead. But when I reviewed the evidence, I noticed other phone calls Michelle made that night, which were not discussed in open court. At 7:59, she called Conrad. The phone rang for 21 seconds and went to voicemail. She called at 8:02. Voicemail. At 8:04, 8:06. 9:15. 9:17. 9:40. 9:49. Voicemail. At 10:22, she texted Camdyn. “Do you know where he is?” Camdyn walked out to her backyard and showed the text to Lynn.
In total, Michelle called Conrad’s number 28 times after 7:58. No matter how hard I tried, I could not ﬁt these calls into any premeditated plan. They seemed desperate. They seemed frantic and last-ditch, like the lunge after a vessel that has come unmoored.
This feature was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, November 2017.