The real-world implications of our obsession with true-crime shows

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Throw a rock and you’ll find a true-crime documentary. Or a true-crime podcast. Or a true-crime book. All offer insight into the violent circumstances around a high-profile or mysterious death or disappearance. The true-crime genre offers audiences a chance to pore over specific details of a crime as if they themselves were detectives on the case. Most true-crime stories try not to sensationalize these elements, opting to use the crime as a vehicle to examine how a system fails. That’s the best-case scenario.

However, when made accessible by the media, the crime becomes the subject of a debate about who is guilty or innocent, and where the blame really lies. In the case of Conrad Roy, who died by suicide in 2014, there’s been plenty of true-crime coverage. Roy exchanged disturbing text messages with this then-girlfriend Michelle Carter, where Carter allegedly encouraged Roy to kill himself while he was having a mental health crisis.

Carter was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2017 and sentenced to 15 months in prison. During that time, a documentary titled I Love You, Now Die, from HBO, was released. The film, directed by Erin Lee Carter, complicates the story presented by Bristol County prosecutors that Carter, at the age of 17, drove Roy to end his own life at the age of 18. Among the many complications the documentary raises is the mental state of both parties, and the nature of the pair’s relationship, which relied heavily on dramatic and obsessive interpretations of pop culture. The documentary detailed how both Carter and Roy were prescribed antidepressants. “The film presents a well-rounded look at a bizarre tale that was a deadly convergence of mental illness, loneliness, pop culture, and technology,” the HBO press release reads.

The film does a good job of asking tough questions about the case, which from its start was the subject of international press coverage. There were essentially two camps: those who believed that Carter, through her messages and her decision to not inform anyone about Roy’s intentions to harm himself, caused Roy’s death and should be held accountable for it, and there were those who believed that a 17-year-old girl could not be held responsible for what was, overall, a toxic situation.

But the film is also part of a media storm that places Carter’s trial, conviction, and release up for public debate. Those who believed that Carter was responsible for Roy’s death have taken to Twitter to lament her early release from her 15-month sentence — she served 11 months, after entering prison in February 2019. “Anyone who has followed this case from the beginning knows this sociopath has no place roaming free in society,” one person wrote.

Others jumped to her defense, mostly in the replies of those who posted complaints about her early release. Like so many other cases that reach this level of public engagement, there are two sides, and people tend to come down hard on one or the other. That's all complicated by true-crime entertainment, which delivers an inside, and sometimes invasive, look at the inner workings of investigations.

The genre can shine a much-needed light on injustice: Netflix’s Making a Murderer revealed the ways in which a police force can fail those accused of crimes. Other times, like with Killer Inside, it reopens a case that has no satisfying end, like in the case of Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction and death by suicide. But for as much as true-crime can shine a light on injustice, it can also complicate, and turn tragedy into a public forum for problems that extend far beyond those involved.

As Michelle Carter re-enters society as a 23-year-old woman, she won’t just be contending with her own conviction and her own guilt, she’ll be juggling what will feel like an entire’s planet judgment about her actions. Depending on what side of the line you fall on, you can consider that to be good or bad.