Part IV in a series of reports on Michelle Carter. Parts I, II and III can be read here, here and here.
After the DA who prosecuted Michelle Carter made a motion to stop my writing about the case, Judge Lawrence Moniz officially responded on September 1st, 2017. The judge reiterated the embargo against anyone disclosing Conrad Roy’s medical records, to which I was already adhering. Most importantly, despite the DA’s barrage of criticism aimed at my blogging and at me, the judge made no criticism of my conduct and did not impose censorship on me. It was an indirect rebuke of the DA’s compulsive efforts to suppress the truth about Michelle Carter and a blow for freedom of speech and press. (Public Record 60, the Michelle Carter Case Archive)
Michelle Carter sat at the defendant’s table in the Juvenile Court in Taunton, Massachusetts on June 16th, 2017. At age seventeen, she had supposedly “ordered” her older boyfriend Conrad Roy to get back into his truck to die of gaseous fumes.
Now a beleaguered-looking twenty year old, Michelle was awaiting the judge’s verdict on charges of manslaughter that could put her in state prison until she was forty years old. To Michelle’s immediate right sat her attorneys Joseph Cataldo and Cory Madera.
Passions ran high in the courtroom. Behind Michelle sat friends and family. Across the aisle, behind the prosecutor’s table, sat a larger group of local people, many relatives and friends of the family of the deceased Conrad Roy. Many wanted vengeance; forgiveness was not in the air.
After sternly warning everyone in the courtroom restrain their emotions, Judge Lawrence Moniz began to explain what went into his decision-making about whether Michelle was innocent or guilty.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Criminal cases have a high standard for determining guilt. The accused must be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the presence of any reasonable doubt, including alternative explanations, the accused is not guilty.
The prosecution had tried to prove that Michelle killed Conrad with her dominating words to “get back in the truck.” The defense pointed out that Conrad had a long history of suicidal impulses and attempts before ultimately killing himself.
As the defense medical expert, I had written two initial reports, one on Michelle and then one on Conrad (sealed). With considerably more information at time of trial, I testified that Michelle was depressed, anxious and suffering from anorexia when Conrad committed suicide. Harvard’s Mclean Hospital had recently released her from a voluntary psychiatric hospitalization on June 18th, 2017, two weeks before her ten-day breakdown and the death of Conrad Roy. The day following her discharge as an inpatient, the Anchor Clinic admitted her for outpatient follow-up. The clinic admission stated: “Client reports she is the only support Conrad has — this can be ‘overwhelming’ — he told her two days ago he loves her — she is not sure it’s a good idea to get back together.”
The Integrated Summary observed: “Client’s current stressors include the loss of 3 grandparents within the past 3 years, the end of a friendship, and a breakup with a boyfriend. Clt appears to be in a caretaker role for the ex-boyfriend who has mental health issues. Clt appears to cope with anxiety by controlling food intake and caretaking others.” (Bold added)
Michelle did not share with anyone that Conrad had emotionally tormented her for two years with threats of suicide before pushing her to agree to help him to achieve his goal of going to heaven.
In addition, both Michelle and Conrad were taking antidepressant drugs that commonly worsen the mental condition and behavior of young people. These drugs double the rate of suicidal behavior in short-term controlled clinical trials and increase that risk even more in routine community treatment where supervision is sparser, consent comparatively inadequate, and patients suffer from more complicated problems, such as Michelle’s anorexia and Conrad’s multiple prior suicide attempts. Many studies have shown that these same antidepressants cause antisocial behavior in a high percentage of young people (see Parts I & II). The FDA-approved Full Prescribing Information for Celexa lists the following adverse psychiatric effects:
Psychiatric Disorders – Frequent: impaired concentration, amnesia, apathy, depression, increased appetite, aggravated depression, suicide attempt, confusion.
Infrequent: increased libido, aggressive reaction … drug dependence, depersonalization, hallucination, euphoria, psychotic depression, delusion, paranoid reaction, emotional lability, panic reaction, psychosis. Rare: catatonic reaction, melancholia. P. 27
The above paragraph shows how antidepressant drug effects could account entirely for Michelle’s negative transformation in personality and behavior during the ten days before Conrad’s death. A “frequent” event is one that occurred at least once in a hundred cases in the clinical trials, and again, these same effects will be worse and more frequent in the greater complexities of routine medical practice.
The Judge Renders His Verdict
As Judge Moniz got ready to announce his verdict, he initially emphasized the flimsiness of the state’s case. Conrad, the judge reminded us, was continually talking about suicide and researched the methods “extensively.” Conrad by himself thought of and obtained the water pump that filled his truck with carbon monoxide fumes. He had even fixed the water pump on his own when it broke down. Michelle Carter was nowhere near Conrad and had no direct hand in his death.
After reciting some of the many weaknesses of the state’s case, Judge Moniz’s tone seemed to harden. He emphatically declared, “When Miss Carter realizes that Mr. Roy has exited the truck, she instructs him to get back into the truck which she has reason to know is or is becoming a toxic environment inconsistent with human life.” (These key remarks begin at 6:23 minutes of June 16, 2017 video “Judge’s Determination of Guilt” available on my Michelle Carter Archives.)
Michelle’s face, up to now relatively expressionless, began to show dread. Her attorneys looked increasingly stunned and Joe Cataldo leaned over to comfort her.
The judge repeated his emphasis on “get back in the truck,” stating: “She instructs Mr. Roy to get back in the truck…” With the same emphasis, he went on to conclude, “This court finds instructing Mr. Roy to get back in the truck constituted willful and reckless, I’m sorry, wanton and reckless conduct by Miss Carter.”
The lynchpin of Judge Moniz’s finding was that Michelle Carter ordered or instructed Conrad Roy to get back in the truck, knowing it could kill him. On this basis, he found Michelle guilty of manslaughter.
The judge also found Michelle guilty of wanton and reckless behavior that “caused the death” of Conrad Roy when she “did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.” She was wanton and reckless in that regard because “she had put him in that toxic environment.” (These remarks begin at 11:55 minutes)
The judge’s words, “put him in” the truck once again demonstrate that the entire case against Michelle Carter, every bit of it, hinges upon the seemingly concrete fact that she gave Conrad Roy a specific order to get back into his toxic truck. Without proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Michelle gave those instructions, the prosecution had no case.
In the judge’s opinion, Michelle’s “orders” to Conrad, supposedly delivered long-distance on her phone, “put him” back in his truck to die. In this view, Conrad is a robot under Michelle’s voice command, so that she becomes responsible for ordering him into the truck and then responsible for not ordering him out.
Let us set aside for the moment whether Michelle had such power of command and whether Conrad was devoid of self-determination. We have a prior question: What physical evidence, what facts do we have, that Michelle ever said anything like that to Conrad? As the centerpiece of the DA’s case and the judge’s opinion, the words “get back in the truck” must be recorded somewhere.
Evidence that Michelle Ordered Conrad to His Death
What is the basis of the firmly held opinion by the DA’s Office and Judge Moniz—beyond a reasonable doubt—that Michelle ordered Conrad to his death?
Almost everyone I have asked about the case believes that there must be a record of this alleged conversation.
Was there a text message to Conrad? No.
Was there a phone call documented with a voice recording or transcript? No.
Did a witness overhear Michelle telling Conrad, “Get back in the truck”? No.
Perhaps Michelle made a written or recorded confession to the police? No.
Perhaps Michelle told someone at the time of Conrad’s death that she ordered him to “go back in the truck.” There is no such evidence.
No, there is no direct, irrefutable evidence that Michelle ordered Conrad to his death. The entire case hangs on a fragment of a larger conversation that Michelle texted on one occasion to a friend more than two months after Conrad’s death—at a time of growing confusion, grief, guilt, and shame on her part.
From the time in 2012 that Conrad texted her that he was going to kill himself that very night, Conrad made Michelle responsible for his life. When he wanted to resume their relationship in 2014, she texted her friend that she feared Conrad would kill himself if she did not go back to him. Her later texts that she was responsible for his death, taken literally by the DA, expressed her feelings throughout the relationship.
How emotionally and mentally stable was Michelle when she texted her friend about telling Conrad to get back into his truck? For the previous two-plus months since Conrad’s death, Michelle had been texting and phoning him in heaven, doing so dozens of times in the futile hope of hearing back from him as he had promised.
Michelle and Conrad had planned it this way: he would end his pain by dying, and they would carry out their relationship—with him in heaven and her on Earth to honor his name throughout her life. Less than two days before her text to Sam about Conrad’s death, Michelle made her last communication to her boyfriend in heaven. (09.13.2014, Public Record 57)
Hey babe. I hope your birthday was beautiful and happy yesterday. I was thinking about you the whole day. I wish I was there to celebrate with you. But the tournament went so well today. I know you were probably looking down with a smile watching the games. I raised over $2300 for you babe! This is the start of my journey to help others. I love you and miss yu so much. Youre forever in my heart. smile down on me. I hope I made you proud.
Does this sound like a mean, conniving girl? Or does it sound like someone in an alternate reality, unable to deal with her boyfriend’s death, and somewhat delusional under the influence of an antidepressant?
The Irony of the DA Using Michelle’s Own Words Against Her
The DA takes Michelle’s self-destructive statement texted in despair to a friend two months after Conrad’s death as a truth so certain it is sufficient to charge and convict her of killing Conrad. This is ironic. Throughout the trial, the DA repeatedly described Michelle as a liar, a faker, a manipulator, an exaggerator, a dramatizer, a schemer, and someone whose declarations could never be trusted. The DA considered Michelle an outright liar who was wholly unreliable except on this one quote that served the DA’s driving need for a conviction.
During her cross-examination of me, the DA startled me by making the outrageous claim that Michelle entirely faked the innumerable text discussions with her friends about cutting herself, including having a friend come over to remove her knife from her house. The alleged purpose for the fakery was getting attention. As proof that Michelle was a colossal liar who made up the cutting texts, the DA claimed that there was no evidence that anyone had ever seen her cuts or scars.
I recalled seeing, among the thousands of texts, that Michelle’s friends had seen her self-inflicted wounds, but I had not marked the text pages for easy reference. It never occurred to me that the DA would claim Michelle was making up such an elaborate rouse to gain attention. Fortunately, before the trial continued the next day, I was able to locate at least two examples where friends texted her with concern about seeing her scars and cuts while hanging out with her in small groups at school (Public Record 58).
The next morning when I took the stand, the DA could not deny the meaning of the texts that I had found. The new texts destroyed the DA’s lengthy claims that Michelle entirely faked her cutting. It was the DA, and not Michelle, whose word could not be trusted.
The Assistant DA was handed the texts between Michelle and her friends that I found overnight and read them to herself. They were undeniable, but she did not apologize for calling Michelle a liar in public and in front of the media. Nor did she ask the judge to disregard her having called Michelle a liar throughout most of her cross-examination of me the previous afternoon. She just never brought it up again.
As in so many other instances, the DA managed the news cycle with practiced adeptness. During the overnight break, newspapers published the uncontested claim that Michelle was lying about being a cutter. The next morning, there was no coverage when I disclosed the texts from distressed friends who had seen her scars and cuts.
Teenage Michelle May Have Been Overly Dramatic at Times
There may have been some truth in the DA’s belief that Michelle, in seeking love and attention, sometimes exaggerated or dramatized things. During this time, she was 14 to 17 years old, very stressed, and taking Prozac or Celexa. It is even truer that she took much too much responsibility for trying to help her friends with their problems, while relying on them too much as well.
If, as the DA’s office emphasized, Michelle was so desperately driven to get attention that nothing she said could be trusted, how could she build the state’s entire case around her words texted in a moment of great emotional distress? The answer is that the DA had no case to begin with. The DA’s office was grasping at straws in declaring that Michelle had acted out of a selfish desire to get attention; and then grew the straws into cudgels to beat her with in the media and the courtroom.
When Sam read Michelle’s texted self-accusation about causing Conrad’s death, Sam gave it no credence at all. Instead, she reassured Michelle, “U know exactly what I’m going to say. It’s not ur fault. Nothing is ur fault.” (Public Record 57, p. 1703) That’s what you say to a friend who always exaggerates her responsibility for the suffering of other people, including her boyfriend Conrad Roy both before and after his death.
How the DA Misused Michelle’s Text
Assistant DA Katie Rayburn, dour and dressed in black dress suit and black heels, stood before the judge, asked, “If I may, your honor,” then received his acknowledgment to go ahead with her closing argument in the trial.
Without a single word of explanation, the Assistant DA immediately launched into a dramatic reading from Michelle’s text to her girlfriend:
Sam his death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him 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 Sam because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t let him.
With one important inaccuracy, the Assistant DA’s words were Michelle’s words. But it was not Michelle’s voice that resounded in the courtroom and was filmed on video for the world to watch. Judge Moniz and everyone else in the courtroom and watching live on video heard Michelle’s text spoken aloud in that ominous, prickly voice of the Assistant DA—a voice contrived and practiced to throw fear and confusion into opposing lawyers and witnesses on the stand.
The attorney’s tones, intonations or nuances were not those of a diffident, shy Michelle, wracked with guilt, shame and remorse. Michelle’s text was enacted before the judge and the world by a woman of considerable authority and force, a woman used to intimidating people. Michelle Carter had no such power. It was a brilliant if highly devious strategy. It was far more a railroading than a search for justice.
Watching the DA’s performance as it unfolded live on TV, I felt a shock go through my body. It took me many minutes to process that I had not heard Michelle’s voice at all, but the voice of someone out to destroy her by making a convincing display of relentless authority out of a girl’s words.
But what else the DA did was much worse than substituting her voice for Michelle’s.
Running Together Separate Sections of Michelle’s Texts
Assistant DA Rayburn finished her first quote from Michelle, “I wouldn’t let him!” with a tone of power and control beyond the capacity of Michelle Carter.
Imagine a ten-year-old girl saying, “I wouldn’t let him!” Now imagine a seventeen-year-old girl saying, “I wouldn’t let him.” Now imagine a battle-hardened mature Assistant District Attorney saying, “I would let him.” All we heard was the battle-hardened DA.
Rayburn told the judge that with those words Michelle killed Conrad Roy and caused all the harm associated with it. “She created the harm, your Honor, when she told him to get back in the car… She wasn’t going to let him live. That was her decision, your Honor. She wasn’t going to let him live.”
Without space to take a deep breath after that ringing condemnation, Rayburn then launched without explanation into a second quote from Michelle’s texts to her friend. She did this so effortlessly that even I did not realize she had skipped over significant comments by Michelle in order to create the worst possible effect. This is what we heard in the authoritative voice of the DA:
…and its all my fault because I could of stopped him but I fucking didn’t all I had to say was I love you don’t do this one more time and hed still be here
The effect of dramatizing these words without others to provide the context was impossible to detect, and she never said she was cutting and pasting the text. By skipping critical texting by Michelle and then resuming with the word “and” in the phrase “and it’s all my fault,” the DA made it seem contiguous with the statement about telling Conrad to get back into the truck. The DA did this so convincingly that it left me temporarily with the impression that the words were seamlessly connected.
Here is the actual continuous flow of text before and after Michelle’s “confession.” (Public Record 57)
FROM MICHELLE TO SAM:
HAHAHA okay well hopefully that wont happen anytime soon And well Ill try not to but I always apologize for things especially when I feel its needed. And Well shes divorced so she like tells me that a lot of people on his side of the family (some aunts and uncles) and Conrads grandpa like treats her kinda poorly and not supportive of what happened and stuff like Coco [Conrad] was very sensitive and he took things to heart. And his grandpa and dad (her ex) didn’t treat him that good and always pressured him and stuff and it gave him so much anxiety. And I always told him to not spend as much time with them because he just couldn’t handle it and it made him worse being around them but he worked for them like they owned that tug boat company and Coco always felt pressured to live up to their expectations. But with all his issues and stuff he couldn’t and that was a big part of his decision to commit suicide. And so his mom just tells me how they and like some aunts and uncles on that side just don’t have much sympathy and his grandpa especially doesn’t seem to even care at all which drives me insane but his mom and I both agree he will live with the guilt. And she just like tells me all about that and about her new boyfriend and stuff and I mean I like that she tells me these things I want to help her I just get overwhelmed sometimes with what she says like she expects me to know what to tell her and I want to tell her the best things I can because I promised Coco I’d help his mom and sisters get thru this like I told him I wont let them go thru depressions and I told him I’d help them and always be there but now that I think of it, youre right she is depressed so I failed Coco I wasn’t supposed to let that happen and now I’m realizing I failed him. Sam his death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the care because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in Sam because I knew he would do it all [new text continues:] over again the next day and I couldn’t have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t let him.
And therapy didn’t help him and I wanted him to go to McLean with me when I went but he would go in the other department for his issues but he didn’t wanna go because he said nothing they would do or say would help him or change the way he feels. So I like started giving up because nothing I did was helping and but I should of tried harder like I should of did more and its all my fault because I could of stopped him but I fucking didn’t all I had to say was I love you don’t do this one more time and hed still be here and he told me he would give me signs to know he is watching over me but I haven’t seen any and I just idk I’m sorry about this rant I just needed to get that off my chest and its finally all sinking in.
What a false impression the Assistant DA gave by compounding the bold portion of the above texts. First she leaves out Michelle’s discussion of the conflicts in Conrad’s family and how Conrad felt harmed by them. Then, in between her two readings, she leaves out:
And therapy didn’t help him and I wanted him to go to McLean with me when I went but he would go in the other department for his issues but he didn’t wanna go because he said nothing they would do or say would help him or change the way he feels. So I like started giving up because nothing I did was helping and but I should of tried harder like I should of did more
Then she leaves out Michelle’s pitiable hopes for getting a sign from Conrad in heaven. What a different picture the complete text shows. Conrad is a beleaguered teenager caught up in family conflicts and mistreatment of him. Michelle is an idealistic, confused, needy, guilt-ridden teenager carrying the weight of Conrad’s death upon her—much as she carried the weight of suicide threats and attempts all by herself for nearly two previous years.
Tinkering with Words
I do not want to distract too much from the Assistant DA’s massive manipulations of the texts by pointing out slight changes in wording, but one seems especially important. Where Michelle actually texted “all I had to say was I love you,” the DA misquotes Michelle’s text as saying, “all I had to do was say I love you.” It changes the emphasis from what Michelle was saying to what she was doing. Why is that so important? Because under most of the law and in most people’s minds, murder involves doing something to the victims, not saying something to them.
The Seriousness of the DA’s Manipulation of Michelle’s Text
From my decades of courtroom experience, I can confirm that a witness on the stand in a trial would never get away with quoting two separate segments as if they were one. Nor would a witness get away with leaving out significant material before, in the middle, and after a quote presented as if it were seamless. The opposing attorney during cross-examination would have held the witness up to ridicule and made him or her seem like an unconscionable, untrustworthy individual. Even if done innocently, with no attempt to harm, the opposing attorney would have berated the witness in front of the judge and jury.
In this case, however, the DA’s intent was to portray Michelle’s text in the worst possible light, without regard for the real context. She got away with this because she did it in her closing argument rather than on a witness stand where she could be cross-examined. Also, she carried out the ruse so masterfully that even I did not catch or fully grasp her manipulations until I reviewed her closing a second time on a video.
More Context for Michelle’s Infamous Text
Michelle’s unbroken continued exchange with Sam further documents her mental and moral condition at the time, as demonstrated by her continued, unbroken exchange with Sam:
FROM SAM TO MICHELLE:
U know exactly what I’m going to say. It’s not ur fault. Nothing is ur fault. And his mom probably is telling u this cus [because] she feels like no one else cared about him like u and her did. Like she feels like u can be there for her cus no one else gets it. Ur not failing anything tho. Look what u accomplished this weekend! That’s def not a failure.
FROM MICHELLE TO SAM:
I know youre always gonna tell me it isn’t my fault but the more that I think about it, the more I think it is and I’m sorry that I think that. I cant get that phone call out of my head. Like I still call him and hope that he’ll pick up I know that’s bad. But yeah that’s true you’re right maybe that is why shes telling me all this. I’ll think of it that way, it helps make it a little easier thank you for that. You do give helpful responses that’s why I tell you these things I just hope you don’t mind. And yeah I guess so, I just really wanted to make him proud. He always tried to help others too so I wanted to honor him and I do feel proud of what I did. Do you think he’s happy up there tho Sam? Like really happy
FROM SAM TO MICHELLE:
I think that he doesn’t want u to think its ur fault. It’s not ur fault If its anyone’s fault it’s the people who made him unhappy. He did what he did because he was unhappy and u were one of the happy things in his life. He didn’t do what he did because of u. He wants u to be happy and would never want u to think like that
FROM MICHELLE TO SAM:
But do you think he’s happy? Youre right tho (I always say that but you really are always right) like I guess the people who made hi unhappy are more at fault than me if theres anyone to blame. I guess I feel like its my fault because I was the only one Coco [Conrad] told his feelings and everything to so I felt responsible for saving him you know? But thank you for saying that it really helps. I know he doesnt want me to think its my fault and I know he wouldn’t want me to live feeling guilty so I have to continue rising from this and not let myself sink. You’re my anchor remember? And you’ve kept me from sinking throughout this and I cant thank you enough for that
What Does Michelle’s “Confession” Really Tell Us?
Michelle’s lengthy communication with her close friend Sam demonstrated the complexity of Michelle’s situation. She organized a softball tournament after his death not to aggrandize herself, as the DA claimed, but to honor Conrad. When Michelle makes a success of the tournament, she texts Conrad in heaven to report this milestone in their relationship. That was her last attempt to contact him in the afterlife and took place less than two days before she texted Sam about telling Conrad to get back in the truck.
Michelle also promised Conrad she would help his mother recover from his death, and she feels guilty that she cannot do so. She was also worried that Conrad’s mother suspects that she encouraged him to die. She was also concerned about Conrad’s mother, and texted about how Conrad’s father and his family mistreated both Conrad and his mother. Michelle felt vulnerable and in need of reassurance, and was grateful for Sam’s support.
Whoever Michelle was, even at this stressful time, she was not the scheming, heartless, and remorseless person characterized by the DA throughout the trial.
In the midst of this, Michelle told Sam that she feels responsible for Conrad’s death because she told him to get back into his vehicle. Two things are noteworthy about this. First, despite the Assistant District Attorney’s constant harping on Michelle’s lack of remorse, Michelle feels gravely remorseful. Second, Sam does not react to Michelle’s confession by condemning her, but instead by soothing and reassuring her.
Why did Sam not react with at least some degree of shock to Michelle’s confession? Perhaps because she saw Michelle’s statement in its proper context, as a desperate expression of guilt and remorse, rather than as accurate or factual reportage.
Should we take Michelle’s remarks as seriously as the Assistant DA? Should we treat her remarks as reflecting what actually happened at the time of Conrad’s death? Can we do so “beyond a reasonable doubt?”
Survivor Guilt and Memory Dysfunction
Michelle is the survivor of a severe trauma—her boyfriend’s suicide and her participation in encouraging him. In accordance with their pact made in the last ten days of his life, she agreed to help him fulfill his aim to end his suffering through suicide. In the process, she was often ambivalent and fearful, and at other times pushed Conrad to carry out his plans. She saw herself as acting out of love and so did Conrad, as illustrated by many texts and his suicide note. (Public Record 56)
Now that Conrad had been dead for more than two months, Michelle was facing the reality that he was gone and that she might not have done the right thing. She has survivor guilt.
The following description of the psychology of survivor guilt seems tailored to Michelle Carter’s situation:
Guilt presupposes the presence of choice and the power to exercise it. Survivor guilt may sometimes be an unconscious attempt to counteract or undo helplessness. The idea that one somehow could have prevented what happened may be more desirable than the frightening notion that events were completely random and senseless.
Survivors of trauma often exaggerate their own responsibility in their attempt to make sense of events that were essentially or entirely out of their control.
Psychological Trauma Distorts Memory
In addition to the psychological impact of guilt upon memory, traumatic events in themselves distort memory:
People’s memories for traumatic events are — like their memories for more mundane events — easily distorted, a phenomenon referred to as “memory amplification.” For example, traumatic events are highly likely to be rehearsed extensively in an intentional manner: victims will often make a statement to police, be exposed to media footage, and engage in conversations with other friends, family, doctors, or therapists. Each rehearsal opportunity comes with the potential for the inadvertent suggestion of misleading details. In addition, traumatic experiences are also frequently rehearsed in unintentional ways via intrusive images, thoughts, and memories; the “re-experiencing symptoms” typically associated with PTSD.
Antidepressants Disrupt Memory Functions and Perceptions of Reality
Earlier in the blog, I presented the FDA’s summary of the adverse effects caused by Celexa and remarked that they could account entirely for the tragic transformation in her character before Conrad’s death. The same group of adverse reactions should cast “reasonable doubt” on a two-month retroactive text about telling Conrad to get back in the truck.
Here are selections for the list Celexa adverse effects quoted earlier—these negative reactions to the drug are especially likely to corrupt memories or to cause unreal ones: amnesia, confusion, depersonalization, psychotic depression, delusion, and psychosis. These effects can occur with or without an extreme event such as involuntary intoxication.
Lessons from Medication Madness
In my book, Medication Madness: the Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide and Crime, I addressed the memory distortions that occur after intoxication with prescribed medications.
Lying is not the biggest problem in determining the facts about what happened to the person who endured spellbinding drug intoxication. A more common problem is the tendency for all psychoactive substances to cause the brain and mind to distort reality. Pp. 240-241
In Medication Madness, I described how depersonalization—the sense of not causing or participating in events surrounding oneself—occurs along a continuum from feeling remote and uninvolved in what is taking place to feeling like the only one involved and completely responsible for it. This important insight into the continuum of depersonalization was the idea of my research assistant Ian Goddard. Whether the depersonalization results from trauma or from adverse drug effects, at one point the individual can feel like a helpless victim or a non-participant in what is going on, and at another point can feel like the only participant who really matters and is making things happen. In depersonalization, both are distortions of our relationship to the complexities of reality—the one leaving us out as an actual participant in what is going on around us and the other exaggerating our role in a grandiose or omnipotent fashion.
The more commonly recognized end of the continuum is the tendency for the individual to feel “uninvolved” or remote from what they are doing or watching. It is as if the actions they are taking are not their own actions. They gain relief in this feeling that “It’s not about me” or “I didn’t do anything to cause this to happen.” On the other end of the continuum, individuals after traumatic depersonalization can feel “It’s all about me.” For Michelle Carter, the Celexa intoxication, the trauma, and the survivor guilt very likely at times made it all about her, and so she said what she said—that she was entirely responsible for Conrad’s death.
This is what I concluded in Medication Madness about memory and self-reporting after drug intoxication:
In summary, the stories told to me by survivors of medication spellbinding are often confused by memory dysfunction and derealization or depersonalization, and much more rarely by conscious deception. It bears repeating that to overcome these impediments to getting at the truth, I always try to reconstruct what happened based on other sources, such as medical records, pharmacy records, and police reports. P. 242
To this list of more objective sources, we can now add texting and other forms of modern communication.
In Michelle’s case, we have no factual evidence whatsoever that Michelle ever told Conrad to get back in the truck and to die. Furthermore, we have many reasons to produce “reasonable doubt,” including alternative explanations for why she may have thought or written that she ordered him back into the truck to die.
No Necessity to Psychiatrically Interview Michelle about Her Mental State
For reasons to do with managing the trial that were outside my role as a medical expert, I was not given the opportunity to ask Michelle specific questions about her mental state or conversations with Conrad during the period leading up to his death. However, I did have much more objective information about her mental state including her extensive texting with many of her friends, including Conrad. Because of the texting, I felt that I possessed more complete and objective information about her mental state than if I had relied upon questioning her about it in retrospect.
According to her attorney, Michelle does not recall the events of those last few days before Conrad’s death. This is common, even typical, after trauma of any kind and especially so after drug-induced neurotoxicity. As seen in the quotes from experienced clinicians and researchers (above), and from my own book about medication madness, the memories can fade or become amplified, and frequently become distorted by emotions.
Even if Michelle was certain that she told her boyfriend to go back into the death trap, my extensive clinical and forensic experience would suggest that her memory could not be trusted, and certainly not enough to provide the basis of a criminal indictment.
To prove an aspect of Michelle’s criminal intent—her alleged intention to do something she knew was harmful—the DA in trial quoted a text message from Michelle in which she asked Conrad if he had deleted his text messages. She may have already deleted some at his request.
In fact, deleting messages was entirely Conrad’s idea, and Michelle was so naïve she wondered why he wanted to do it. This quote is from the July 10, 2014 emails, three days before his death (p. 1538):
Conrad: I’m going to delete my messages.
Michelle: Why are you depleting them. [sic] And Okay babe I love you so much
Conrad: someone’s gonna see my phone. I’m such a dumbfuck
Michelle: Put a lock on it. Don’t worry about you’re phone
On July 21, 2014, nine days after his death, Michelle texted Conrad: “You should be here right now. You’re the love of my life I thought we would be together forever. I don’t understand why you left me like this! It still doesn’t seem real.”
That “It still doesn’t seem real” can be the result of both severe trauma and antidepressant intoxication. That is the “depersonalization” cited in the Celexa Full Prescribing Information.
A few minutes later, Michelle sent Conrad a lengthy text that displays anger, remorse and self-doubt. She told him, “I never tried harder to save someone than I tried to save you.” She explained how she tried to get him into more intense therapy but he refused. She finished by reminding him of their pact:
You talked about being in heaven and being my angel and at the same time I went along with it because I knew you weren’t gonna do anything. But you fucking did it and I’m so sorry I didn’t save you. I tried so hard I loved you so much. You’ll forever be in my heart Conrad.
Behaving badly and doing something wrong are not the same as breaking the law or perpetrating a crime; but Michelle at this point is not weighing whether or not she has committed an indictable offense. She is struggling with what is real. Crime and punishment are not on her mind.
Then, about one-half hour after the text to Conrad, reality closed in. Michelle wrote to her friend Sam:
And I just got off the phone with Conrads mom about 20 minutes ago and she told me that detectives had to come and go through his things and stuff. It’s something they have to do with suicides and homicides. And she said they have to go thru his phone and see if anyone encouraged him do it on texts and stuff…Sam they read my messages with him, I‘m done. His family will hate me and I could go to jail. P. 1585
The words “detectives,” “suicides” and “homicides” must have terrified Michelle, but this appears to be the first time she grasped any danger from the police or from betraying Conrad’s mother. Yet Michelle is still not thinking like a “criminal.” Knowing the police are looking into Conrad’s phone messages, Michelle does not throw away or destroy her own cell phone. It will not be until September 15th, 2014—seven more weeks—that she writes to Sam about telling Conrad to get back in the truck. During this time, she shows little or no concern about getting in trouble with the police, and when asked later by the police, she hands over an intact phone.
In my testimony, I expressed my belief that Michelle thought she was helping Conrad fulfill his goal to die as easily and surely as possible without additional suffering. I also found that he had pushed her for two years to agree with him that his suicide was inevitable and he wanted to do it successfully so that he would not find himself maimed and/or having to do it all over again.
From both their viewpoints, what Michelle was doing was good and honorable—even if it were unacceptable to other people and needed to remain secret. Tragically, these two young people were way over their heads in dealing with their mutual distress and their exposure to antidepressants. Like so many youngsters today, instead of relying on adult guidance or help, they relied almost wholly on each other and their social media.
Who Was in Control: Michelle or Conrad
Let us suppose instead that Michelle had texted her friend Sam that she had told Conrad to stop what he was doing? What if this statement had been cited in her defense?
Instead of treating it as an absolute truth, the Assistant DA would have reminded us that everything Michelle ever said could not be trusted because it was motivated by self-interest, self-aggrandizement, and the need for approval. That is what the Assistant DA repeated many times while cross-examining me, even arguing that Michelle made up cutting herself in her dozens of texts about it with numerous friends.
The DA did not cite Michelle’s text to a friend on April 28, 2014, where the issue of Michelle’s reliability in self-reporting comes up, as well as the fear she has of Conrad’s control over her .
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
Well 2 things
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
Conrad has been talking to me
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
He wants to hang out. And do stuff…
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
Haven’t you had sex already??
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
No did I tell u I did?
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
Yeah lol [laughing out loud]
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
What? Wait when did I tell u that? Like [she names two male classmates] basically raped me but we didn’t have the sex part [Michelle mentions this assault on several occasions to friends. From all the texts, it appears she remained a virgin.]
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
U told me last year u and Conrad had sex lol
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
Oh well I‘m sorry no I didn’t. He wanted me to but I chickened out.
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
Don’t have sex with anyone ever unless you love and don’t make excuse. You can’t do it unless you’re comfortable.
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
Yeah I don’ wanna have it but he really wants to and I feel like he’s pressuring me into it. I only wanna do it with someone I love anyways. I don’t want my first time to meaningless
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
And u won’t be comfortable with it unless they love u and u love them. Don’t let him pressure u Michelle straight up say no Conrad, I’m not having sex with u
MICHELLE TO FRIEND
I tried I mean I said I wasn’t ready and I’m nervous and he eased me into it and reassured me it would be fine. And he has like an std I’m pretty sure.
FRIEND TO MICHELLE
(in caps) THEN DEFINITELY DON’T
Conrad, and not Michelle, was by far the dominant and much more self-centered person in their relationship. The DA’s accusation that Michelle dominated and manipulated Conrad is created out of thin air—but it turned millions of people into haters of Michelle and influenced the opinion of Judge Moniz.
The question of Michelle’s reliability in reporting past events gets yet more complicated. On October 1st, 2014 (p. 1747 of texts), now 7 weeks after Conrad’s death, she texted her close female friend Sam about Conrad: “Okay so he would always pressure me into having sex.” She gave graphic details of what Conrad wanted and how she stood up to him. Then she told Sam, “This was 2011 so I was 15. I just wasn’t in a rush because like I knew hed be my first for everything.”
Then Michelle described how Conrad took down his pants and finally did assault her in his own home. She ended the text, “I just didn’t feel exactly ready. But he forced it on me so there was no way around it.”
If this allegedly forced sex or rape did take place, it must have taken place before Michelle told a different friend in April 2014 that she had never had sex with anyone, including Conrad. The sexual assault could not have happened afterward because Michelle never saw Conrad after April 2014. Therefore, she made contradictory statements about experiencing sexual relations and about whether or not Conrad ever assaulted her.
One of the two drastically different versions of her sex life with Conrad must be very wrong. Which version is true—that Conrad pressured her but never forced sex on her or that Conrad pressured her and eventually did use force on her?
What we can determine from the texting between Michelle and Conrad is that Conrad was the sexual aggressor and did try to groom her for what she told him would be her first sexual intercourse. Concerning the possible forced sex, there is no way to know if Michelle is texting the truth or if she is lying or confused.
Her experience of the assault could be real. Or it could be similar to seeing the devil after restarting Prozac—not based on reality and very likely induced by antidepressants (see Part II of this series). What we do know is that Michelle did at times tell very different, contradictory stories about the same events.
We are on no firmer ground when trying to decide if Michelle really told Conrad to get back into the truck. In her several versions of what happened before Conrad’s death, telling him to get back into the truck is mentioned only once, and more than two months after his death.
If Conrad were alive, would it be just to charge him with rape on the basis of Michelle’s self-contradictory texting about his forcing himself on her? No, of course not! It was no more just to charge Michelle with his murder based on her conflicting texts.
What If Michelle Did Tell Conrad to Get Back in the Truck?
During the last ten days of Conrad’s life, Michelle Carter was suffering from antidepressant-driven antisocial attitudes and behaviors, as well as delusional beliefs about doing good by helping her boyfriend go to heaven. These irrational beliefs included her belief, texted to Conrad, that her support of his mother could make his death relatively painless for her.
Michelle’s condition when trying to help Conrad complete his suicide, and persisting for a time afterward, was driven by a tragic concurrence of events: An involuntary drug intoxication with Celexa, Conrad’s relentless tormenting of her with threats of killing himself within hours, and Conrad’s manipulation of her love for him and her guilt feelings. The seventeen-year-old, in my opinion, was incapable of formulating rational, independent or mature decisions leading up to Conrad’s death.
A Case with No Basis—But With Huge Threats to the Future of America
Because Bristol DA’s office was so adamant, most people who read the media coverage engineered by the DA came away with the misimpression that Michelle must have texted Conrad the fatal message. The impression was so strong that BuzzFeed, a widely read Internet news source, reported: “Carter texted him to ‘get back in.’” For proof, they referred to “the thousands of text messages the two exchanged.” (Public Record 52)
BuzzFeed’s mistake was understandable and found in the major media as well. When I was hired by the defense to review the case, I was shocked to learn that Michelle never texted Conrad to get back into his deadly truck environment. The DA based the case against Michelle on what the seventeen-year-old supposedly said to Conrad on the telephone in the moments before he died; but there is no documentation of what the two said to each other in those phone calls.
Let me repeat: there is no text, transcript or recording that demonstrates that Michelle ever said anything to Conrad about getting back in the truck to die. The DA’s entire case is based upon the “confession” of an irrational girl on antidepressants who has been trying to communicate with her boyfriend in heaven with dozens of futile texts and phone calls.
We return to the concept that governs criminal cases—that conviction must be “beyond a reasonable doubt”:
The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
There are abundant alternative explanations for Michelle’s remarks about telling Conrad to get back in the truck. She could have been exaggerating. She could have a false memory based on feelings of guilt. It could be a Post-Traumatic Stress image: an intrusive but unreal fear about how she behaved. It could be the false product of antidepressant intoxication—something that frequently happens. Her memory could be out of sequence, and the memory may have occurred during one of his many earlier and unsuccessful suicide attempts. It could be more a remnant of a nightmare than a real life event.
We are not nearly done examining the threatening implications of the Michelle Carter case. The trial—and the DA’s prosecutorial conduct toward Michelle before, during and after the trial—require further examination. So does the attack on me and my right to speak my mind about what happened.
The DA’s prosecution of Michelle Carter illustrates many growing risks for the future of America in respect to freedom of speech and press, the rule of law and not people, the politicization of the legal system, and the protection of Big Pharma’s interests at the expense of patients, their families, and society.
Part V will come out in about another week.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.