Credit: Peter Pereira/The New Bedford Standard Times via AP

LISTEN: Explaining Michelle Carter's Sentence

August 3, 2017

Susan Kaplan: This is All Things Considered. I'm Susan Kaplan. Michelle Carter, the Plainville woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter for her role in the suicide of Conrad Roy III, has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison — half of that sentence suspended. Carter had opted for a bench trial, and two months ago was found guilty by the presiding judge. Now that same judge has handed down the sentence, though Carter is free for now as she appeals her case. Joining us on the line to explain Carter's sentence is WGBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed. Thanks for joining us Daniel.

Daniel Medwed: My pleasure, Susan.

Susan Kaplan: So Carter's case is sort of one of a kind. She was convicted of manslaughter based on a series of text messages and phone calls between her and Roy in which she encouraged him to follow through on a plan to commit suicide. Both Carter and Roy were teenagers at the time. Does the sentence fit the crime?

Daniel Medwed: People are going to debate this for the next few days, maybe the next few decades, actually. I think it's appropriate that she did receive prison time, and I'm not sure if this is sufficient. Some people will be upset. But given that she was a juvenile — 17 at the time of the crime — had a lengthy and well-documented history of mental health troubles, and was under medication at the time of the incident, it makes sense that Judge Moniz would extend some measure of leniency. As he said in his remarks, the purpose of the juvenile system, in many respects, is to offer rehabilitative opportunities. And I think that is probably what was behind this decision.

Susan Kaplan: Why is it that the judge sentenced Carter to two-and-a-half years, but said that she only needs to spend 15 months of that sentence actually behind bars?

Daniel Medwed: I think the idea behind that is by suspending the second half of the sentence - the remaining 15 months - he's providing an incentive for her to live on the up and up and accommodate and abide by all the terms of her probation. So part of it is an incentive system.

Susan Kaplan: Can you explain what the judge was weighing legally when he decided upon the sentence?

Daniel Medwed: There are a lot of different factors. You look at the crime itself, the blame-worthiness of the defendant, the defendant's future prospects, the concern about deterrence, what message the sentence would send. The rehabilitation angle in some respects is a complicated stew where you put in aggravating ingredients and mitigating ingredients and come up with a dish. And I think in the end he did rely on some of the fundamental principles of the juvenile justice system. She was a teenager at the time. We know a lot about adolescent brain development now, that people don't fully develop their capacity for decision making up until the age until the age of 25. And I think when he mixed up this and added in all these elements he came up with two-and-a-half years — half of it suspended.

Susan Kaplan: OK, so the case was tried in juvenile court. Is it common though to see sentences like this come out of manslaughter convictions in the juvenile system?

Daniel Medwed: It's uncommon in many respects. This case is very idiosyncratic. She was charged as a youthful offender, which is a designation that was created about 20 years ago by the legislature to basically be tough on juveniles who commit serious crimes. And youthful offenders, even though they committed the crimes while juveniles technically face adult sentencing exposure. So in this instance, as a youthful offender, she was facing anywhere from probation to 20 years. And she could spend it in a juvenile facility until the age of 21 or in an adult facility. She could also spend it in a county jail or in the state prison. Here, Judge Moniz opted for the county jail, which has a lot of benefits for Michelle Carter. It is closer to her family. It's going to be in Bristol County and county jails are often not as bureaucratic, not as potentially fraught with peril depending on the situation as state facilities.

Susan Kaplan: What sort of precedent does this set?

Daniel Medwed: The case itself — such a tremendous legal precedent ... because it was a manslaughter case in essentially what is a coerced suicide situation. It also creates precedent not just because it was manslaughter basically for words that prompted someone else to act, but also for what it says about criminal causation. She wasn't there with Conrad Roy. She was in a remote place communicating with him through text messages and through the telephone. And ultimately he made the decision alone in the car to kill himself. And a lot of scholars, and I'm in this camp, would say that his behavior was an intervening cause that broke the chain of causation from her action and the final result.

So it's quite possible that this conviction is vulnerable on appeal. If it survives, it will certainly be a significant precedent. And no matter what, it’s something that I'm going to put in a casebook one day.

Susan Kaplan: OK, thanks for joining us Daniel.

Daniel Medwed: My pleasure, Susan.

Susan Kaplan: That's WGBH legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed talking to us about the case of Michelle Carter, the woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her friend Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. Carter was handed a two-and-a-half year sentence today — half of that sentence is suspended, and Carter is free for now pending appeal.


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