I can relate with Michelle Carter.
Every so often a criminal case emerges in America that turns into the viral thread and the casual conversation, where everyone seems to have an opinion. O.J., Zimmerman, “The Stanford Swimmer,” Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony, Bill Cosby, and all the police officers who are known by the hashtag names of their victims. Michelle Carter is just the latest, and history will likely recall her as “the text girl,” or something like that.
As I listen to the buzz, following her conviction for involuntary manslaughter (and facing up to 20 years in prison), some argue she should not have been convicted at all while others feel she is going to “get off lightly,” no matter what the sentence. People’s perspectives often can be predicted based not on their objective assessments of crime and punishment, but rather on the demographics of the people involved. We know that there are plenty of Americans who will call out for the death penalty in nearly every crime… except full acquittal whenever a police officer kills a young Black male (or female), because that cop “reasonably feared for their life.” We know these opinions are coming because of their long held structural belief system- it blinds all objective reality.
Michelle Carter will take heat, possibly to the end of her days, for something she did at 17; and watchers of the nightly news will likely hold the same views years from now as they do in this very moment. Every time she applies for anything: college, jobs, apartment rentals, even a date- she will be judged. It will linger, and some people will act like it is their personal duty to keep the punishment going, as if they are doing the wave at Fenway Park.
When I was 17, one of my good friends killed himself soon after calling me. We had been hanging out all night drinking and smoking pot, and I forgot he had gone sober months before. We spoke about his ex-girlfriend and I completely overlooked the hole of depression he had fallen into. He called me to talk, but I was on the other line with another friend, and for years I put his death on my own back. Felt like I had killed him. I didn’t need a society of viral judges nipping at my ears. The punishment going on in my head was bad enough.
When I was 19, I killed a man. And 25 years later, I still feel the punishment inside my own head, my own heart, and every time I open my mouth in mixed company. I’ve been out of prison for 12 years, but I have not been let back into society. Nor will I ever be. That is simply a statement, not a plea for mercy. Every application, every move, comes with the re-judging, and I’m not sure people can even restrain their human instincts. And often times, their judgments can be predicted, lacking little, if any, independent discretion.
I can relate with Michelle Carter, but I hope she never has to relate to me. I hope that 25 years from now she is able to find peace with herself, and that she doesn’t feel hunted down by society, always nipping at her ears. She has had three years already to begin processing what went down that particular night of her life, that one night the world would use to define her entire existence. Science, however, tells us that she still has another five years before her mind is fully developed. So by the time she actually is a fully-formed adult, much of her life will be spent in relationship to these actions and this label.
Michelle Carter’s life is more than an intriguing legal scenario, which I can comfortably discuss through the lens of my legal experience and law degree. I’ve resisted, however, all of those ‘Backseat Lawyer’ conversations, despite having served my own time less than 25 miles from the courthouse where she will be sentenced. The judge will do what he will do.
Whatever it is the judge does, appeal or not, and whatever it is she deals with over the next 25 years… like so many young, publicly convicted people: I can relate. There are many of us out here, and all we can do is keep working towards a grounded space from where we can bring positive actions into the world. There may even come a time when she tries to help troubled teenagers from making their own life-altering mistakes, and the irony is that so many people and programs will bar her from providing that help. (This has been my own experience.) But she just needs to do what she can do.
I know so many people who can relate with Michelle Carter. Perhaps if we can build an accessible and supportive social system, we will have fewer teenagers who change their own lives, and other’s lives, forever.