Many media outlets have reached out to me for further comment on Michelle Carter’s verdict and sentencing in response to my op-ed published in the L.A. Times . I have declined these invitations, because I do not want to make this about me, but I do think it is worthwhile to respond to some of the critical commentary I’ve received, particularly on Twitter. This commentary can be roughly divided into six types:
1. Michelle Carter doesn’t deserve our sympathy. If she had been black, she would have received a harsher sentence.
It’s true that black people very often receive harsher sentences than white people for the same crimes. This incredible injustice is also reflected in wrongful convictions. The majority of wrongfully convicted people in this country are black men.
But you don’t solve injustice by replicating it. The proper response is to bring the downtrodden up, not to push the privileged down. Advocating a harsh sentence for Michelle Carter does nothing to alleviate the harsh sentences handed down to black people.
2. Michelle Carter doesn’t deserve our sympathy. Conrad Roy III would be alive today were it not for her. Her words killed him. She is a criminal and deserved to receive a harsher sentence.
I agree that what Carter did was wrong. I do not dismiss or condone her actions. However, I do caution against conflating wrongdoing with criminal wrongdoing. One is a moral concern, the other is a legal concern. The ACLU argues that finding Carter guilty of manslaughter sets a dangerous legal precedent threatening our freedom of speech. Carter’s influence may have aggravated Roy’s mental illness, but her words did not literally kill him. The only thing that literally killed Roy were his own actions. He was sick, he was vulnerable, but he was never without agency.
3. Michelle Carter is evil. Fuck her and her eyebrows.
What first caught my attention about Carter’s case was the fact that the prosecution, media, and public were portraying her as a selfish, attention-seeking femme fatale who used her Circe-like powers to force her male companion to commit a terrible act he otherwise wouldn’t have committed. Having been wrongly accused of the very same thing, alarm bells went off.
Evil is the easiest scapegoat. It’s also not real. If we hope to understand Carter (and Roy’s) motivations, we need to refrain from boxing them into unreal, subhuman stereotypes (mind controller and mental slave). And even if Carter were as two-dimensionally “evil” as they say, we, as decent, civilized people, should check ourselves when we find that we are mobbing and crying out for blood. It’s in this spirit that wrongful convictions are born.
And one more thing: the many throw-away, tongue-in-cheeks remarks trolling Carter for aspects of her appearance (“She deserves another two years just for her eyebrows!”) do nothing but perpetuate the idea that a woman’s worth is in what she looks like. Wanting to punish Carter doesn’t give you permission to be a misogynist.
4. What Michelle Carter did was wrong. Even if she shouldn’t have been found legally culpable, she deserves punishment.
I’m going to go out on a limb now, but…maybe nobody deserves punishment. Not even the worst criminals. Everyone in society deserves to be safe from wrongdoing. Victims deserve to have their wounds cared for and acknowledged.
What do criminals deserve? As broken members of society, maybe they deserve our help. As the criminal justice and anti-death penalty advocate Bryan Stevenson says, “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Help may require custody, supervision, or even incarceration—all things that impinge upon a person’s individual freedom—but punishment beyond these measures may not be necessary.
Punishing a criminal doesn’t undo the crime. And if the standard forms of punishment in the U.S. do a poor job of rehabilitation (and there’s good reason to think that’s true), and if the severity of a punishment does little to deter crime , then the only reason to punish is vengeance. And vengeance makes us barbaric. I bet most of the people crying out, “Lock her up!” have never actually been to prison and have no idea what it does to you.
In an ideal society, we wouldn’t use punishment to alleviate our outrage and pain. These are legitimate feelings, and addressing them is a legitimate social task, but there are healthier ways to deal with pain than inflicting pain on others.
5. I thought you were innocent, but now I believe you are guilty.
Thinking that my moral and legal position on Michelle Carter’s case has any bearing whatsoever on the objective evidence which determined my exoneration is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to wrongful convictions. Your gut reactions to another person have no bearing on the factual evidence that determines that person’s guilt or innocence. Gut reactions do provide useful information, but only about yourself.
6. This whole story is sad and confusing. We have to draw a line somewhere, but where? I feel bad for everyone involved and don’t know what to think. Can I feel sympathy for Carter and Roy (and Roy’s family) at the same time?
Believe it or not, yes.
From my own experience, I find that people often succumb to the single-victim fallacy—the idea that, in tragic situations like these, there are good guys and bad guys on opposite sides, and no crossover, nothing in between. People convinced by this fallacy argue that any acknowledgement of my victimization necessarily diminishes the acknowledgement of Meredith Kercher’s. And people convinced by this fallacy argue that any compassion for Carter’s flawed humanity necessarily diminishes the gravity of her actions and the tragedy of Roy’s death.
But they are wrong.
My goal in writing the op-ed was to point out that there is another valid response to tragedy: compassion. I’ve had to work hard through my own outrage over the injustice I suffered in order to empathize with my prosecutor, the Perugian police, and all those who spew hatred at me daily. I worked hard because I didn’t just want to feel righteous anger, I wanted to understand. And I’ve discovered that the key to my understanding is compassion. Compassion is practical—it makes us more effective, clear-eyed truth-seekers. Compassion is empowering—it opens the doors to reconciliation. And compassion is just—we only compound injustice when the worst of someone else brings out the worst in us.
Published by the Westside Seattle 08/05/17.