Carter de­serves sym­pa­thy

Her pri­son sen­tence for in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter is wrong­headed.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Amanda Knox Amanda Knox is the au­thor of “Wait­ing to Be Heard: A Mem­oir.”

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 self­harm 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 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.

Charles Krupa As­so­ci­ated Press

CARTER ad­vised her boyfriend against self-harm.

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