In Defense of Michelle Carter

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels (CCO)

On February 6, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled to uphold the involuntary manslaughter conviction of then-17 year old Michelle Carter for the 2014 suicide of Conrad Roy III. The pair, both from Massachusetts, met in Florida in 2012 while visiting relatives and began dating. He was 16; she was 15. Though they lived about 35 miles apart, Carter and Roy only saw each other three other times in person. Their interactions took place through texts and phone conversations throughout their on-and-off relationship.

Both Carter and Roy struggled with mental illness. Carter suffered from an eating disorder, took Prozac and Celexa for depression, cut herself, and completed an inpatient program at a psychiatric facility. Like Carter, Roy was also prescribed Celexa for depression. In February 2014, five months before Roy’s suicide, his father was charged with assault when the police responded to a call and found the teenager with injuries to his face. The case was later dismissed. Carter’s attorneys claimed that Roy was also verbally abused by his grandfather and uncle.

The first of Roy’s five suicide attempts took place in 2011, a year before meeting Carter, when he overdosed on Tylenol. Earlier that year Roy’s parents divorced. His mother told that the divorce “hurt him deeply.” At the time of the overdose, Roy was on the phone with a female friend who called police.

For two years, Roy texted Carter threatening to kill himself. Carter’s reactions ranged from sympathy to fear. She repeatedly urged him not to commit suicide and to get help. She also confessed to a friend during one of the couple’s off-periods that she feared Roy would kill himself if she didn’t agree to get back together with him.

By repeatedly threatening to kill himself, Roy was terrorizing and controlling Carter. Shortly after Carter’s release from the psychiatric facility Roy suggested that Carter kill herself, even though she had never expressed any desire to commit suicide. The timing of this suggestion — as Carter struggled to re-acclimate to the world after being released from in-patient care — is particularly cruel.

“Let’s do a Romeo and Juliet,” Roy texted. “The two of us, together, kill ourselves.”

Carter replied, “[Expletive] no. We are not dying.”

Two weeks later Roy again pressed Carter to participate in a double suicide. This was the turning point at which Carter’s response to Roy’s suicide threats began to change. Once he started trying to convince her to take her own life, she no longer attempted to dissuade him from ending his.

Carter seemed to realize that Roy’s obsession with suicide would never subside and that death was something he truly wanted. The couple agreed that he would commit suicide and that they would continue their relationship with him in heaven and her on Earth.

On July 14, 2014 Roy committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning inside of his truck at a Walmart parking lot. Carter helped him devise the plan. That morning she texted him, “Are you going to do it today?” He was on the phone with her when he died. He was 18; she was 17.

More than two months after Roy’s death Carter texted a friend: “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 [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.”

The judge’s ruling of involuntary manslaughter centered largely on this one text. The judge ruled that instructing Roy to get back in the car showed criminal intent and constituted wanton and reckless behavior that directly led to his death. This conviction was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court even though Massachusetts is one of only 10 states that does not have laws prohibiting assisted suicide. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the conviction on the basis that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech and stretches the boundaries of criminal law.

The logic behind the ruling is flimsy and inconsistent. If Roy had been debating purchasing a lottery ticket and Carter had told him to get back in the store and do it, would she be entitled to the winnings? If he had contemplated leaving work early one day and she told him to get back in the office, would she have a right to his earnings for the remainder of the day?

The cursory news coverage painted Carter as a mean girl, a monster who heartlessly coerced her boyfriend into committing suicide. The court released thousands of texts between the two teenagers. When I read them, I expected to see nasty messages from a bully. Surely, Carter must have provoked Roy by telling him that he was worthless and didn’t deserve to live. Nope. She continued texting for nearly two months after his death saying that she missed him and wishing him a happy birthday.

The desire to commit suicide had preoccupied Roy before he even met Carter. The fact that Carter didn’t try to stop Roy’s fifth suicide attempt — the way she had tried to stop multiple previous attempts — doesn’t mean she’s a murderer; it only means she’s not a hero.

A native of the Washington, DC area, Aliza Epstein is a non-profit manager by day and an aspiring writer by night.

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