Hthe ulu limited series Plainville’s daughter opens with two teenagers exchanging a series of text messages that stoke viewers’ anxiety: “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me”, turns into “We should be like Romeo and Juliet in the end”, which turns turns into “Are you going to do it now?
It’s a sequence that condenses what happened in the real life of Conrad Roy III and Michelle Carter: Roy died by suicide and a judge condemned Carter for manslaughter for having encouraged Roy, by SMS and calls, to suicide. Dubbed the “suicide by text message” case, Roy and Carter’s story garnered intense national attention ahead of Carter’s 2017 trial. Now, with renewed interest from the show, the case remains at the center of a legal controversy over who can be held responsible for someone else. suicide, especially when it comes to teenagers and digital communication.
What to know about Plainville’s daughter
Plainville’s daughter released its first three episodes on March 29 and now releases new episodes every week, as it chronicles the complicated two-year relationship between Carter, then 17, (played by Elle Fanning) and Roy (Colton Ryan), then 18 , leading to his suicide in July 2014 by carbon monoxide poisoning. Carter was sentenced to 15 months in prison but was released in January 2020 for good behavior after serving just under 12 months.
The events dramatized on the show are more relevant than ever as youth suicide rates rise – it is now the third leading cause of death among youth and young adults. In a February 2022 report, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics found that rates among 10-24 year olds in the US had increased by more than 50%. since 2001.
Also more relevant than ever are questions about the intersection of technology, free speech and mental health, and whether Carter’s punishment fits the crime.
Here’s what to know about the impact of the events depicted in the docudrama on our legal system and on society at large.
What are the legal implications, especially for virtual relationships, of Michelle Carter’s case?
Michael Mosley and Elle Fanning in “The Girl from Plainville”
The case described in Plainville’s daughter pioneered how digital communications can be used in a criminal trial. During Carter and Roy’s largely virtual relationship, which began in 2012, Carter sent Roy text messages urging him to follow through on plans to kill himself, culminating in a phone call where she told him. told to get back in a truck full of exhaust fumes. .
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, says that while Carter’s actions were “unethical,” her conviction was surprisingly shocking. a legal point of view. “The idea that you could be charged with manslaughter for someone else’s intentional decision to kill themselves is really strange on the face of it,” she says. “Suicide is generally not seen as something you can directly contribute to, unless you give someone a physical tool.”
While prosecutors have focused on text messages exchanged by Carter and Roy, Massachusetts had no law prohibiting encouraging suicide — by any means, including digital communication — at the time of trial. of Carter. This created controversy that Carter was convicted of manslaughter, a charge typically involving reckless behavior that directly causes another person’s death, such as drunk driving. Instead, Franks says, the court “conformed to existing law to try to accommodate what Carter did” due to the company’s outrage.
Franks says it’s also notable that, although Carter’s story is known as the “suicide by text message” case, juvenile court judge Lawrence Moniz ultimately based his decision on the last phone call between Carter and Roy rather than the text messages that preceded it. “Ordering Mr. Roy back into the truck was wanton and reckless driving,” Moniz said in his verdict.
Why assigning blame is a legal gray area
Society tends to want a clear explanation of why a person, and especially a young person, would end their life. That helps explain the national outrage over Carter’s actions, says Stephanie Fredrick, associate director of the University at Buffalo Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention. “When it comes to cases involving the suicide of a young person, we tend to want to boil them down to a single factor that caused the suicide,” she says. “But it’s usually much more complex than that.”
Carter’s guilty verdict highlighted the legal gray area surrounding the idea that words alone can cause suicide. Critics of the guilty verdict, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), have expressed concern that Carter’s sentencing could set a dangerous legal precedent – it could expand criminal culpability to include speaking rather than action alone. ACLUM legal director Matthew Segal said in a statement that the verdict “jeopardizes freedom of expression” and could “chill important and useful end-of-life discussions between loved ones.”
Carter’s verdict was previously referenced by prosecutors in the case of Inyoung You, a then 21-year-old Boston College student who encouraged her 22-year-old boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, to kill himself in 2019. You pleaded guilty of manslaughter as part of a plea deal that saved him from jail time.
In the years following Carter’s conviction, Roy’s parents also lobbied to pass “Conrad’s Law,” a bill that would make coercion of suicide punishable by up to five years. years in prison in Massachusetts.
What does the case mean for the way teens communicate digitally?
Elle Fanning and Ella Rubin in “The Plainville Girl”
In real life, as on the show, the troubled teens exchanged thousands of text messages and Facebook messages without their parents’ knowledge, and those messages became part of the court case.
For Franks, this deluge of digital communication was a big part of why the case was so controversial and compelling. “There’s a feeling there was panic about a generational divide,” she says. “Much of the older generation seemed particularly alarmed by the idea that texting and technology could be such powerful weapons.”
It also underscores the importance of getting young people to think about the implications of what they say via text and online, especially as the popularity of digital communication among teens grows. The pandemic has had a particularly surprising impact on teens’ use of texting and electronic devices: in 2020, Statista reported that texting was the preferred method of virtual communication for more than 80% of teens in the United States, and that teenagers’ use of electronic devices had doubled. since the start of the pandemic.
Fredrick says it’s the responsibility of parents and other trusted adults to talk to young people from an early age about what they say online, and to emphasize that the things they say digitally have as much weight than the things they say in front of someone. Unlike how we see Carter react in the Girl from Plainvilleteens also need to know how to respond appropriately if a friend or peer expresses a desire to harm or end their life.
“There’s not as much adult supervision in most of these digital spaces,” says Fredrick. “So we need to be able to say, ‘Here’s what you need to do if you have a friend who is struggling with mental health and is talking about it online.
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