Why the Michelle Carter Verdict Does More Damage Than Justice

Though she was indicted for involuntary manslaughter, Carter’s real crime was her subversion of society’s archaic notions of suicide, which treat suffering as morally preferable to relief.

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Though she was indicted for involuntary manslaughter, Carter’s real crime was her subversion of society’s archaic notions of suicide, which treat suffering as morally preferable to relief.

Michelle Carter during trial (Image via the Boston Globe)

 

On June 16, twenty-year-old Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for her involvement in the 2014 suicide of her then-boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. The case has all the makings of a bad Lifetime movie— two troubled teens, a relationship that evolves primarily over texting, a dark ending that highlights the dangers of modern technology in society. In fact, I’d be surprised if one isn’t already in the works.

Everyone loves a good tragedy, as long as it’s not happening to them, and the Michelle Carter case is the latest real-life courtroom drama to capture America’s fascination. Unfortunately, this drama is no movie—at least not yet—and the provocative case, particularly its controversial verdict, carry potential consequences that could reverberate well beyond the teen tragedy itself.

Like Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox, the beautiful, notoriously troubled Carter is the latest in a line of infamous femme fatales to become vilified in the public eye, and her guilty verdict was met with many a scathing “She got what she deserved” from the Greek chorus of Facebook comments.

This response, however, is far from universal, and the Michelle Carter verdict has proven to be extremely divisive both legally and constitutionally. A decision that violates free-speech protections of the United States Constitution while blatantly crossing the boundaries of Massachusetts state law, the controversial verdict also raises ideological concerns in its reinforcement of problematic and ultimately archaic attitudes toward suicide.

I Know What You Did Three Summers Ago

If you haven’t been following the case, here’s a brief background.

Back in the summer of 2014, while everyone else was dumping buckets of ice over each other’s heads, Carter, then seventeen, and her boyfriend, Roy, eighteen, exchanged a number of texts concerning the latter’s declining mental health and suicidal thoughts.

Initially Carter’s texts encourage Roy to seek help, telling him that mental health professionals could “save his life” and urging him not to hurt himself. By July, however, Carter begins to encourage Roy’s suicidal intentions, advising him on methods and increasingly pressuring him to take action, criticizing him for “pushing it off.”

Carter during her trial (Image via The Sun Chronicle)

On July 12, Carter extracts a promise from Roy that he will “do it today.” He was found dead in his truck in a Kmart parking lot the next day, having inhaled carbon monoxide from a generator.

Carter was first questioned by police in October of that year, and was indicted in February 2015. Much of the case has been built around her text messages with Roy, as well as a phone call that allegedly took place between the two the night of his death, during which Carter claims to have told Roy, who had exited the fume-filled truck, to get back in.

A Terrible Tragedy, But…

Immediately following the June 16 verdict, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts released a statement contesting the decision. Matthew Segal, a legal director at the ACLU, calls Roy’s suicide “a terrible tragedy.”

“But,” continues the statement, “it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.” Noting that the state has no law “making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide,” the statement goes on to argue that the conviction “exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.”

Other legal experts have expressed similar concerns. Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law professor, also claims the verdict has “extended the law of involuntary manslaughter to an arena into which it hasn’t been extended before,” noting that Carter played no physical role in Roy’s suicide. Carter provided neither a place nor instrument of death, nor was she even present at the time of the suicide.

Carter was, however, ruled “virtually present” in 2015. While controversial, virtual presence is a potentially valid idea given the rapidly advancing abilities and prominence of technology in society. However, in this case, Carter’s “virtual presence” was limited to the phone call in which she allegedly told Roy to return to the truck.

According to the “New York Times,” however, there is no recording of this phone call. The only knowledge of the conversation comes from a text Carter sent a few months later to another friend in which she refers to the call and claims to have told Roy to “get back in.” The absence of any recording leaves it impossible to know what was actually said or to determine the extent to which it may have influenced Roy’s decision. Beyond her alleged words, Carter had no power over Roy. She had no way of forcing him to return to or remain in the vehicle. Ultimately, regardless of what Carter may or may not have said, Roy’s decision was his own.

The Right to Die

Beyond the legal and constitutional violations of the verdict, Carter’s conviction highlights a much broader ideological concern regarding problematic societal attitudes toward suicide.

Although antiquated laws prohibiting suicide have gradually faded away throughout the country over the past several decades, the stigma remains, and dominant attitudes condemning suicide ring almost puritanical in the underlying notion that suffering is somehow deserved and necessary, and escape from that suffering is morally reprehensible. Despite its legality, society constantly exhibits a need to criminalize suicide, usually by identifying and, where possible, prosecuting a culprit.

The Carter controversy comes just a few months after the notorious Netflix Original, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” incited many schools nationwide to issue official warnings and bans against the show about a teen suicide. At best, these fear-driven, roundabout attempts to vilify suicide are misguided. At worst, they’re censorship, and will only increase the already dangerous stigma surrounding suicide.

In the same statement, the ACLU expresses concern that the Carter verdict “could chill important end-of-life discussions between loved ones.” Ultimately, people, especially young people, are going to be a lot less likely to reach out to a friend in need if there’s a possible conviction behind every text. If people are afraid to talk about suicide, suicidal thoughts become all the more isolating, leaving struggling individuals increasingly vulnerable. Ultimately, suicide is a personal choice. Like any other personal choice, it is one that deserves respect and open discussion. Finding new ways to criminalize suicide helps no one. Rather, it merely leaves suffering individuals in the dark.

The text in which Carter claims to have told Roy to get back into the car has been called “one of the most damning messages” in the case. I find it the most heartbreaking, but for very different reasons.

“I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I (expletive) 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,” Carter wrote.

Carter is not the monster the media has made her out to be. She regrets her words, and she regrets Roy’s death. While Carter may have made a mistake in her approach, she ultimately did Roy the rare honor of respecting his suffering, as well as his right to escape it.

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