As a criminal defense attorney, I find popular conceptions of the law a bit frustrating. Many imagine a universe based entirely on logic and reason and insulated from emotion and bias (despite human conflict being at the heart of all legal disputes). Thankfully, books like The New Jim Crow and documentaries like 13th have begun to shed light on the widespread racial injustices in our legal system, but fewer have recognized the patriarchal underpinnings upon which the law rests.
In law school, we are taught that an idea only has value if it comes from a court of law. Then we spend three years reading cases in which women are denied access to rights. (See, e.g., Minor v. Happersett (1875), upholding a Missouri law against female suffrage; Goesaert v. Cleary (1948), upholding a Michigan law prohibiting women from bartending; Geduldig v. Aiello (1974), sustaining a California disability insurance program excluding normal pregnancy.) We are all tested on a case, which has since been overruled but floats into my mind regularly, deeming women “unfit” to practice law due to the “natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex” (Bradwell v. Illinois (1873)).
While the law has made strides since Bradwell, harmful female stereotypes continue to infiltrate the courtroom. A more recent example is how sex workers are readily prosecuted for prostitution while the johns who hire them and pimps who exploit them often get off scot-free, a vestige of the deep-rooted notion that “unchaste” women are unworthy of the law’s protection. (This is just beginning to change as human trafficking is more widely understood.) Another example is the typical narrative built around women in criminal trials, in which lawyers tell stories to emotionally lure jurors. When the woman is the victim, the defense attorney colors her as promiscuous. When a woman is the defendant, the prosecution paints her as sneaky and manipulative, as using those around her as pawns in her evil scheme — Eve convincing Adam to eat the apple.
There is no better recent example of how the law perpetuates the very stereotypes it claims to be insulated from than the case of Michelle Carter. The modelesque 20-year-old was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter for “convincing” her boyfriend Conrad Roy to commit suicide. Michelle will be sentenced this month. She could face up to 20 years in prison, despite being in a different city when Conrad’s death occurred and playing no physical role in the death.
Michelle and Conrad met in 2012 while on vacation in Florida. Both teens lived in Massachusetts and struggled with mental health issues. Following the trip, the two struck up a mostly digital romance: They exchanged more than 20,000 text messages over the course of several years but met in person only a few times. The romance ended in July 2014, when Conrad poisoned himself with carbon dioxide fumes inside a Kmart parking lot. This was his second suicide attempt.
Michelle, who was 17 when Conrad died, repeatedly encouraged her boyfriend to get professional help over the course of their relationship. A few days before his suicide, however, Michelle changed her tune. “You’re gonna have to prove me wrong,” she texted him, “because I just don’t think you really want this. You just keeps pushing it off to another night and say you’ll do it but you never do.”
The texts that that followed horrified the internet when they were later released. Michelle became hostile.
Michelle: SEE THAT’S WHAT I MEAN. YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF! You just said you were gonna do it tonight and now you’re saying eventually…
Michelle: Do you have the generator?
Conrad: not yet lol
Michelle: WELL WHEN ARE YOU GETTING IT
Michelle went on to convince Conrad that his friends and family would move on and accept it if he went through with the suicide. The day of, she told him: “You just need to do it Conrad or I’m gonna get you help. You can’t keep doing this every day.” Conrad promised he’d do it that day, and he did.
In finding Michelle guilty of homicide, the judge did not hinge his ruling on these texts. Instead, he based it on a phone call — a call that was not recorded, but rather was discovered months after the suicide when Michelle referenced it in texts to a friend. According to these texts, Conrad stepped out of the carbon monoxide fumes to call Michelle, who told him to get back in the car. “I heard him die,” she texted her friend.
The judge ruled that Conrad “[broke] the chain of self-causation by exiting the vehicle,” and Michelle’s instructing Conrad to get back in the vehicle “constituted wanton and reckless conduct” that triggered a duty to help. When she didn’t do anything, the judge concluded, Michelle became criminally responsible for his death.
Legal experts were stunned by the court’s conclusion that a person’s words can compel another person’s suicide. Harvard law professor Nancy Gertner said the verdict extended involuntary manslaughter law into new arena: the notion of liability for someone who didn’t act, wasn’t present, and didn’t provide the tools of the death and the concept of the failure to intervene to prevent a suicide. ACLU lawyer Matthew Segal said, “This is saying that… her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here is her words.”
In her opening statement, the district attorney said Michelle was “desperate for attention and sympathy from classmates” and yearned to be seen as the “grieving girlfriend.” Michelle “needed something to get their attention,” the district attorney said, and used Conrad as a “pawn in her sick game of life and death.”
The public — even those who believed Michelle was wrongfully convicted of homicide — quickly latched onto the prosecutor’s narrative. In a Cosmopolitan article entitled “Michelle Carter Is Not a Killer,” lawyer and author Jill Filipovic deemed Michelle “cold and manipulative.” An attorney and friend of mine texted me while I was writing this article: “She deserved it, but I’m concerned with the precedent.” When I asked why she deserved it, he responded, “She was preying on someone mentally and emotionally unstable.” He went on to compare Michelle to Lady MacBeth.
I will not attempt to argue that Michelle didn’t say some troubling things, but I’m concerned about how readily the public adopted the prosecutor’s characterization — the image of Conrad as vulnerable and innocent boy preyed upon by his evil girlfriend who just wanted to be popular.
A brief Twitter search reveals the following:
To me, the facts suggest a more nuanced situation. At trial, Michelle’s treating psychiatrist testified that she was a “very vulnerable” person who wanted desperately to help end the suffering of the boyfriend she loved. He admitted that Michelle’s ideas were “dark,” but she was ultimately a “helper” focused on helping Conrad make it to heaven. As Michelle’s lawyer put it, Michelle was a “17-year-old impressional female who was not equipped to deal with Conrad Roy’s suicide plans.” To me, her efforts to help him don’t seem radically different from someone helping a terminally ill loved one end his or her life. (Authorities have made comparisons to assisted suicide, which is legal in Massachusetts.) The idea that Michelle was a troubled teen struggling to help her suicidal boyfriend seems a hell of a lot more believable than the notion that Michelle aided in killing a man she loved to gain sympathy and popularity among her peers. The 80-plus text messages Michelle sent to Conrad’s phone after his death confirm that Michelle was (a) mentally unwell, and (b) very remorseful.
It may come as no surprise that the only mainstream article I found arguing that Michelle deserves sympathy was written by Amanda Knox. “When I was on trial for murder in Italy,” she wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “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.” Knox continued to argue that Michelle was unjustly held responsible for “failing to act as Roy’s caregiving companion,” a role from which women are chastised for deviating. But the evidence shows that Michelle was, in fact, emotionally supportive, repeatedly advising Conrad against self-harm and to seek professional help for the months leading up to his suicide. As Knox wrote, Michelle eventually bought into Conrad’s suicidal fantasies: “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.”
Being a woman in the public eye is always a difficult, if not dangerous, space to occupy — even when she hasn’t been convicted of a crime. As Christine Friar wrote for the Awl, if you are female and making your voice heard, you are at risk. And it is of critical significance that Michelle — a woman — is the first person to be convicted of homicide exclusively for her words.
The notion that women are sneaky and manipulative also runs rampant through popular culture. The oft-attacked Hillary Clinton, as cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her recent book of essays, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, was chastised most harshly for being “cold” and “sneaky.” And when Clinton did finally shed “that infamous single tear” when discussing her taxing campaign, “it was attacked as manipulative.”
Michelle was likewise criticized for using courtroom tears to gain sympathy. Rather than being interpreted as a legitimate display of a emotion — sadness at her fate, her boyfriend’s death, the adolescent mistake she’ll never be able to live down — her crying was interpreted as just another element of her evil scheme.
And then, of course, there is the Reddit user who believed the angle of her eyebrows proved her guilt:
HippoPotato 43 points 1 year ago
The thumb nail image is all you need to know about how manipulative she is. Look at that super exaggerated “sad” face. Look at an actual remorseful person…there eyebrows don’t point up at s 45 degree angle…and they don’t physically force themselves to have a frowny mouth.
This is pathetic…I hope the jury is smart enough not to fall for that.
Or the one who thought her antics were all part of a grand scheme to attract male suitors:
[–]nrtphotos 1 point 1 year ago
the sad part is that she will have men lined up out the door to be with her when she gets out.
My former law professor and author John Powell wrote that “associations of the unconscious mind are largely formed by our environment, society, and culture.” He continued that “certain images become paired in our unconscious mind,” and “when two images appear repeatedly and frequently, the unconscious mind will connect them.” So it’s crucial that we examine our gut reactions to women in the public eye and realize whether they’re based on evidence or internalized misogyny.
You might be thinking: Michelle Carter is a girl who told her boyfriend to get back into a car filled with deadly fumes. Who cares if we are unfairly stereotyping her? But as Subashini Navartnam wrote:
Indeed, the gaze that is filtered through celebrity culture and spectacle [including high-profile criminal defendants], it turns out, implicates both you and me — the same gaze that people use to…judge celebrities in what they wear is the one that people learn to train onto ourselves and their best friends.
For this reason, I urge you to do the following: when you see woman in the public eye and your immediate reaction is that she’s “manipulative” or “sneaky,” “slutty,” or “crazy,” please interrogate that reaction and ask whether there is evidence to back it up. Otherwise, it might just be your unconscious associations snapping like a rubber band.
John Powell argues that while few Americans today harbor explicitly racist or sexist views, the unconscious mind plays a critical role in creating the discrepancy between our post-racial, post-sexist aspirations and our Ferguson-era reality: “We cannot move towards our goals of fairness and equality until we find ways to nurture the alignment of our unconscious with our conscious values.”