The wrongful death lawsuit filed against Michelle Carter — the 22-year-old convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the 2014 “encouragement” of Conrad Roy to kill himself — has been dismissed by the courts, Conrad family lawyer Erik Goldman only saying, “It’s been resolved.” There are no other details available, beyond the fact that this does not affect her 15-month prison sentence, which began in February.
The case (which will be the subject of a new HBO documentary called I Love You, Now Die) centers around the suicide of Conrad on July 13, 2014, from carbon monoxide poisoning fumes in his truck, and the “encouragement” to do so, via text, by Michelle.
“If the main factor was whether Ms. Carter had a duty of care and Conrad died as a result of her failure to fulfill that duty, it would be worth noting that the appellate courts in the criminal case didn’t assume Michelle was entrusted with Conrad’s well-being,” offers Mark Tunick, author of Texting, Suicide, and the Law: The Case Against Punishing Michelle Carter, of the dismissal, quickly adding, “I don’t know what the plaintiff’s legal arguments were or what the judge’s reasoning was, and the attorneys on either side aren’t revealing much, such as whether there was a settlement, so I don’t have much to say.”
Maybe not about the latest development, but Tunick, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, certainly has his thoughts on the case in general. “I’ve written and teach courses on topics like punishment and privacy, and I teach courses on political theory that addresses what laws the state should enact and what it shouldn’t enact. And when I read about the Michelle Carter case and followed it, it just raised a number of issues that have resonated with me. Privacy: the texts that she and Conrad exchanged, they expected privacy in, but they became public. Can words cause someone to die? This was a first amendment issue. Should the state punish people for conduct that they think is immoral? The case just raises so many issues connected to some of the topics that I have been thinking about.”
And based on the book’s title, it seems pretty obvious that those thoughts have led to the very distinct conclusion that Michelle Carter should not have been found guilty. “Actually,” he counters, “my main argument is that people should form judgments not based on their immediate intuitions and reactions, but by thinking about these complicated issues. A lot of people have formed judgments based on snippets of texts without having the whole story and without thinking of some of the implications. So while I do make the case against punishing her, it’s less important to me that you agree with what conclusion — because I realize that reasonable people can disagree — than that we think about these underlying issues and not just rely on our gut instincts.”
When he decided to explore all of this further, the starting point turned out to be the texts between Michelle and Conrad. As a result, Tunick explains, “I saw that for almost two years she was actually trying to discourage him from trying to kill himself, and it was only the last couple of weeks that she really turned. That’s something that hasn’t been emphasized in what I had read about the case in the press.”
Maybe not, but that fact does raise the question that even if it was only in the last couple of weeks of Conrad’s life, shouldn’t that actually count in the charges against Michelle? “There are different possible theories,” he suggests. “I mean, my sense from reading the texts is that she was getting frustrated that nothing she said was making a difference. She just couldn’t convince him otherwise. He was saying things like, ‘I just want to die; it’s never been so bad.’ There’s one text where you can sense her frustration, where she’s saying, ‘What can I do to help? I don’t know what to do!’ That could be part of it. I know that there are some theories that she wanted attention, but I don’t fully grasp that. Why would she tell him to get back in the truck if she was seeking attention?”
Given that there were a lot of texts between the two and that Tunick read all of them, he obviously came away with an impression of both as people. “Very troubled,” he says matter of factly. “I mean, Conrad is suffering from depression. One of the things that caught my eye, and that I really focused on in the book, is that there’s a moral argument. I agree that Michelle acted badly; I don’t think we should praise what she did. Maybe she deserves our moral blame, but the question of whether she should be legally punished is different. The legal argument is that the court said she coerced him when she said he should get back in the truck, and they said he was not choosing of his own volition when he did so. And that’s what let them say that this was involuntary manslaughter.
“What struck me from the texts,” Tunick elaborates, “is that Michelle wanted to see Conrad and wanted to get close to him and wanted him to be her boyfriend, asking things like, ‘When can we get together?’ And he put her off. Michelle says in one text, ‘Tell me you love me,’ and when he humorously responds, she’s upset with him. So in other words, she’s looking for him to express his love and his commitment to her and he’s sort of resistant. What I’m asking is how could she overbear his will if she didn’t have this control over him? He was actually sort of pushing her away a bit, so I just don’t see how she could coerce him. At the same time, there were times when she gave him advice about different ways to commit suicide, but he didn’t take that advice, so it’s not like he was hanging on every word she said.”
Also catching his attention was a text from Conrad in which he told Michelle that he had found a website with details on how to kill yourself using carbon monoxide poisoning and he sent the link to her. “People are saying Michelle gave him advice and told him how to do it,” he says, “but it was really a two-way street. It’s not like Conrad had no idea of what he was doing until Michelle instructed him. What’s more troubling, and I talk about this in my book, is that giving advice is one thing, but people have to take that advice and we shouldn’t punish people for giving advice. There’s a difference between encouraging and giving advice.
“If I give someone advice, they sort of had this goal. They want to do something and you’re giving them advice about how best to do that, right? So you’re sort of respecting what they want. You’re respecting their autonomy. Encouraging someone is you trying to influence their will, and that’s really different than saying, ‘OK, I know what you want to do and this is maybe one way you can do it.’ From reading the texts and what I understand, it looks like he made the choice. You know, advertisers try to encourage people to do all sorts of things, but that doesn’t make them responsible for the things that people do in response. So the question remains: should she be in prison for what she did?”
The issue can be explored further when Texting, Suicide and the Law: The Case Against Punishing Michelle Carter is published on April 24, but it is available for pre-order.