In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III drove a pickup truck into the parking lot of a Kmart in the small town of Fairview, Massachusetts, filled the vehicle with toxic carbon monoxide and took his own life. He was one of 42,826 suicides in the United States that year.
What turned the incident from a private family tragedy into a media sensation were the circumstances around his suicide: On the day he died and for months beforehand Roy exchanged a cascade of disturbing text messages with his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter.
“Conrad was somebody that was suicidally ideating for a good majority of his adolescence,” notes filmmaker Erin Lee Carr. “In the months leading up to his [suicide], instead of getting help, Michelle Carter was somebody that sort of pushed him to do it. And those events led to one of the most infamous Massachusetts cases the state had ever seen.”
Carr explores that infamous case in I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, a two-part HBO documentary now in contention for Emmy consideration. Carter was put on trial for involuntary manslaughter after authorities gained access to Roy’s cell phone and found the texts.
On the day Roy planned to kill himself, for instance, Carter texted him, “Are you gonna do it now?…You have to do it like you said.” Sometime before the fateful day, Carter texted Roy with suggestions on how to dispatch himself: “Why don’t you just drink bleach. Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself idk [I don’t know] there’s a lot of ways.”
“It was just constant encouragement to take his life,” a detective who investigated the case comments in the documentary, “almost demanding that he take his life.”
After Roy’s death, Carter texted a friend that the young man had gotten cold feet at one point and stepped outside the vehicle, but Carter said she told him by phone to “F***ing get back in.”
“[The case] really set up an incredibly intense debate about what you can text people,” Carr observes. “Seen in a darker way, it is really [about how] our own words have a way of undoing us…We are texting things and saying things to each other that I truly do not think that we would say out loud. And I think that if Michelle had come into physical contact with Conrad and they talked about this [in person], I think it would’ve been a very different conversation.”
Carr constructs her film in two parts—the first part devoted to the prosecution, the second to the defense. The documentary audience, in a sense, becomes a surrogate jury.
“I’m somebody that very closely monitors Twitter and I remember when the film came out in July there was this constant refrain of, ‘I thought I knew this case and I didn’t,’” Carr recalls. “And, ‘I hated her in Episode 1 and I understood her in Episode 2.’ It was really understanding that when you look at these cases all of this can shift your own perception. And there is no such thing as absolute truth when it comes to these things.”
Among the possible mitigating factors was Carter’s own history of mental illness. A psychiatrist argued in court that anti-depressant medication had left her “involuntarily intoxicated.” She was also something of a fabulist—spinning tales to draw attention to herself. If she had a tendency to prevaricate, who is to say she actually told Conrad Roy to return to his vehicle as it filled with noxious fumes?
“It was my assertion that she could have been lying about saying that, because she always wanted people to know how central she was to Conrad, and how central to him she was on the night of his death,” Carr maintains. “She may or may not have told him to get back into the truck. And that’s what this whole case hinged on.”
All of the attention on the case owed something to the defendant’s appearance—young, blond and attractive. Carter became a lightning rod and “her face…synonymous with a form of evil,” as the filmmaker puts it. Carr suggests the teenage defendant was absorbed into a cultural trope that casts young women as dangerous temptresses.
“Everybody was talking about the way that she looked, about how she dressed, about what her perceived actions were,” says Carr, who was present in court for the trial. “I recognized that there was a very puritanical throwback to, ‘We should burn the witch. The witch is evil. This is not reflective of us as a society and how we communicate with others. This is only her, she did this.’”
The visceral reaction to Carter recalls the case of Amanda Knox, the young American woman who was convicted in Italy of killing her roommate in 2007. Knox was eventually acquitted by a higher court, an international legal saga chronicled in the 2016 documentary Amanda Knox.
“It was, of course, a film that I very carefully studied,” Carr tells Deadline. “The very interesting part that differentiates these two films is, to me, it was very clear that Amanda Knox did not do it. And it was all about her perceived affect as being cold and calculating and the Italian court system for taking that on. To me, [with] Michelle, it was very clear that she did this. And so it was about understanding what the mitigating evidence was that created this moment for her to do it. And ultimately if Conrad Roy would have [committed suicide] regardless.”
Carr reveals, “I actually reached out to Amanda Knox to see if I could get her to comment or be interviewed inside the Michelle Carter film.” She eventually decided to keep her documentary more tightly focused on the courtroom proceedings.
“It really was about what is the prosecution side of this story,” she observes, “and what is the defense side of this story, and what is the truth that lies in between?”
At just 32 years of age, Carr has become a master of the true crime genre, known for Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) and Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (2015). In the past year alone she came out with three documentaries: I Love You, Now Die and At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, both for HBO, and the docuseries How To Fix a Drug Scandal, for Netflix.
At the Heart of Gold is being submitted for consideration to the News and Documentary Emmys, while I Love You, Now Die is up for Primetime Emmys.
“I have never won an award in my life and I’m hoping at some point that I win something, even if it’s like the best smile award,” Carr muses. “It’s difficult for true crime stuff to get nominated. And I hope that that changes.”