Note: The following article contains discussion of themes including suicide that some readers may find upsetting.
"Can words kill?" asks 'The Girl From Plainville', a feature published on Esquire back in 2017 about the death of Conrad Roy III.
The 18-year-old, who had struggled with depression and social anxiety for years, died by suicide in 2014.
Conrad drove his truck to a Kmart car park in Massachusetts and waited as carbon monoxide filled the air. He left his vehicle once, before climbing back inside, where he remained until his death.
He had tried to kill himself at least four times before.
Michelle Carter, his girlfriend aged 17 at the time, was 35 miles away at her home in Plainville. She was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
HBO's I Love You, Now Die tells the story of Conrad and Michelle, from the pair's first encounter on holiday in Florida back in 2012 to the bitter end.
The true-crime documentary explores their 21st-century relationship, which involved a handful of face-to-face meetings, about five in total, and a flood of text messages. (The state recovered 317 pages' worth).
It was those texts which were the focus of both the investigation and the trial, as well as the wider public discourse surrounding the case.
Two weeks before Conrad's death following his admission to Michelle that he wanted to die, she repeatedly told him to kill himself, even suggesting ways that he could end his life.
Those messages were a dramatic departure from her initial texts, in which Michelle encouraged Conrad to seek help.
In the documentary, John Suler, the author of The Psychology of Cyberspace, discussed how excessive messaging rather than face-to-face interaction can result in an individual not experiencing the other person as a human being, but a "voice in their head... an internal hallucination".
He explained that you are "interacting with these characters inside your mind rather than understanding that they're coming from another person".
Not only were people disturbed by what they were confronted with when the news hit headlines across the world, they had never come across anything like it. This was new territory.
Before the verdict was announced, the documentary featured several locals who shared their opinions about whether Michelle should be held accountable for Conrad's suicide.
Some believed that she was responsible and her words caused his death. But others, while agreeing that what Michelle had done was depraved and cruel, didn't believe that she had broken the law. To them, it was a moral issue, rather than a legal one.
But despite the shocking nature of those texts, it wasn't her messages to Conrad that convinced the judge to find her guilty – Michelle waived her right to a trial by jury. It was a message to a friend.
The court document reads as follows: "As the defendant herself explained, and we repeat due to its importance, '[The victim's] death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I f**king told him to get back in…because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldn't have him live the way he was living anymore I couldn't do it I wouldn't let him'."
Records show that the pair were talking on the phone while the truck was filling up with carbon monoxide. Conrad briefly left the vehicle before, according to Michelle, she told him to get back inside.
Judge Lawrence Moniz based his decision on the fact that had Michelle not instructed him to climb back inside the truck, Conrad would have lived.
Michelle's lawyers have continually argued that the conviction violated her right to free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, and breached the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause, which assures consistency and clarity in the law.
Michelle appealed her conviction, during which time she was permitted to remain free until the decision was made.
The petition argued that prior to her case,"no state had interpreted its common law or enacted an assisted-suicide statute to criminalise such 'pure speech'". It also highlighted the fact that no one had ever been convicted of helping someone with their suicide without physically participating in it.
But the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court and back in February this year, she was ordered to begin her 15-month sentence immediately.
In September, she was also denied early release from prison.
The Commonwealth v Michelle Carter was described as "unprecedented" by Michelle's lawyers and the reaction to both the original case and I Love You, Now Die is evidence that the public, too, remains invested in the extraordinary events and divided by the guilty verdict.
What the documentary also manages to do is paint a nuanced and at-times challenging picture of victimhood, one that certainly clashes with any preconceptions you might have about Michelle before watching it.
The language she uses is difficult to stomach, and some of her messages cause the viewer to audibly gasp. Despite Conrad's mental state prior to meeting her, the effects of Michelle's rhetoric could only have been destructive.
But in the documentary, Michelle isn't presented as a villain but a sad, lonely young woman who felt friendless and unloved. She would repeatedly ask people at school if they wanted to hang out, to which they would often say that they were busy. Michelle would regularly seek validation from those same people, expressing her unhappiness with herself and her life.
She suffered from bulimia and was taking antidepressants, and not only had Michelle spent time in a psychiatric hospital, she had also spoken about having suicidal thoughts.
In the tabloid press, she was a black widow, calculating and dangerous. But in I Love You, Now Die, the image is of someone much less sinister.
"She didn't live in reality," said Lynn Roy, Conrad's mother. "She lived in some kind of fantasy, I think. She's just not a well person. So how can you be that angry, or how you can you be that... when someone is not, she's not well... She's not well."
We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
Journalist Jesse Baron, who featured in the documentary and wrote the feature about the case for Esquire, also echoed Lynn's sentiment about Michelle's disconnect with the real world.
He described her behaviour as an "eerie inability to fully comprehend reality" and referenced Michelle's infatuation with TV shows, movies and songs which fed into her "romantic fantasy". Ryan Murphy's Glee and one of its stars, Lea Michele, were a central focus for her.
Michelle would quote dialogue from the show in her texts to Conrad, but she would write them as if they were her own words.
Jesse pointed out that on one level, you had "a kid that's going to kill himself" and on another, Michelle's delusions.
The documentary tackles her actions in unflinching detail, but its scope also dedicates significant attention to analysing Michelle's mental state and, crucially, attempting to understand why she did what she did.
That shouldn't be confused with justification but accepted for what it is: a necessary procedure that provides food for thought about which narratives take centre stage in the true-crime genre.
I Love You, Now Die is currently available to watch on HBO, Sky Crime and Now TV.
We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org) or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to visit mentalhealth.gov or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Digital Spy is launching a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like