Twenty-year-old Michelle Carter was sentenced to 2½ years in prison on Thursday after being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for her involvement in the 2014 suicide of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.
Roy’s aunt, Kim Bozzi, had stated that she hoped the judge would hand down the harshest sentence possible. He didn’t — he could have gone with 20 years, and Carter will only serve 15 months — but even his relatively lenient decision is too much.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for Carter, who was wrong to instruct Roy over the phone to get back into the truck in which he was poisoning himself with carbon monoxide. And because suicide is illegal, we can interpret her part in the final moments of Roy’s life as incitement to lawless action, or conspiracy to commit a crime.
But involuntary manslaughter?
Involuntary manslaughter is when a drunk driver crashes into another vehicle, when a gunman shoots at tin cans in his suburban backyard, when a carnival ride operator fails to ensure that all passengers are strapped in, and as a result an innocent person dies. Encouraging your boyfriend to follow through with his own death wish should not qualify. Carter may not be innocent in a moral or philosophical sense, but she was wrongfully convicted.
The very fact that suicide is illegal reveals how self-harm confuses our sympathies. The suicide is his own victim, his own murderer. We naturally want to blame someone for the murder, but we’re reluctant to further condemn the victim. This emotional paradox makes it hard for us to find closure. But with Roy’s suicide, we have, in the person of Carter, another party to hold responsible. It’s much easier psychologically to reproach a villain than it is to hold in one’s mind the contradictory feelings we have about suicide.
When I was on trial for murder in Italy, the media tried to paint me as a “femme fatale.” So it was with a sickening sense of déjà vu that I watched the prosecution attempt the same trick with Carter, whom they said coldly and calculatingly insinuated herself into Roy’s vulnerable consciousness. They held her accountable for failing as Roy’s caregiving companion. Instead of protecting Roy from himself, Carter coerced him to commit suicide against his better instincts.
Except that’s not what she did. For months leading up to Roy’s suicide, Carter advised Roy against self-harm and to seek counseling. Every time she urged Roy toward professional help, she implicitly admitted, “I am not enough.” Carter contradicted Roy’s suicidal thoughts (“What is harming yourself gonna do!? Nothing! It will make it worse!”). But in the end, she bought into it, too. Carter was ill-equipped to manage her own social anxiety, self-harm ideation and body dysmorphia, much less Roy’s depression and tortured obsession with ending his own life.
Each served as catalyst to the other’s mental illness, yes, but without calculation, without cruelty.
In our zeal to deflect blame, we insist on villainizing Carter because we want easy explanations, black-and-white reasons. We want to assign agency whenever something bad happens. But in so doing, we discredit Roy’s agency, which included his choice to get back inside his truck.
Roy made the mistake of seeking the advice and encouragement of another troubled adolescent. He confided his suicidal ideation in the wrong person; he wasn’t thinking clearly, but that was still his choice. Carter made bad choices of her own, terrible mistakes, as her defense attorney said, that she will have to live with for the rest of her life. By holding her accountable for Roy’s death, we increase the tally of victims in this case, we ignore the mental health factors that lead to suicide, and we learn nothing about how to prevent it. We also probably encourage further self-harm in Carter.
I should know. For months after my own wrongful conviction, I fell into a depression as I realized that my innocence did not guarantee my freedom. I fantasized about the various ways I could kill myself. Most often, I pictured myself sitting on the floor of the shower, wrists slit, bleeding out under the warmth and privacy of hot water and steam. I felt the power of those thoughts, the comfort in knowing that no matter how bad things got, no matter how seemingly desperate and inescapable a situation, there was always an escape. But I never took it, in part because I was repulsed by the idea of actually killing myself. Probably more than anything else, it was this healthy visceral impulse that kept me alive.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for Michelle Carter. It’s also hard to feel sympathy for drug addicts or to understand obsessively suicidal adolescents. Even so, we have to try. Just because it’s hard to feel sympathy and understanding, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right — and just — thing to do. Conrad Roy III needed our sympathy and our help and didn’t get it in time. Michelle Carter deserves the same sympathy and help now.
Amanda Knox is the author of “Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir.”