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June 16, 2017

You be the juvenile sentencing judge: what sentence for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide?

A high-profile state (bench) trial culminated this morning in a notable involuntary manslaughter conviction in the so-called in texting suicide case.  This Boston Globe article provides the basic details to set up the question in the title of this post:

Michelle Carter, who repeatedly urged her boyfriend to kill himself, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday by a juvenile court judge, ending an extraordinary trial that explored a virtual relationship between teenagers that ended in a suicide.

Judge Lawrence Moniz delivered his verdict after deliberating for two days in the jury-waived trial in Bristol Juvenile Court where Carter [who was 17 at the time of the offense] was being tried as a youthful offender.  The trial riveted lawyers and the public alike as it delved into the painful interior lives of two teenagers who called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend though they had met in person only a few times....

Bristol prosecutors alleged Carter should still be held accountable for the death of Conrad Roy III even though she was not present when the 18-year-old with prior suicide attempts filled his truck with carbon monoxide on July 12, 2014.  Carter and Roy spoke for 47 minutes as he parked in the parking lot of a Kmart in Fairhaven.  When he told he was too scared and had left the truck, she ordered him to return, according to testimony at her trial. “Get back in,” she allegedly said.

Roy left a suicide note addressed to Carter that was made public during her trial.

Speaking from the bench, Moniz said that he concluded Carter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, in part, for ordering Roy back into the truck in what she knew was a toxic environment where it would take him 15 minutes to die — and failed to notify anyone as required under Massachusetts law.  “Miss Carter had reason to know that Mr. Roy had followed her instruction and placed himself in the toxic environment of that truck,” Moniz said.  “Knowing that Mr. Roy is in the truck, knowing the condition of the truck. Knowing, or at least having the state of mind that 15 minutes must pass, Miss Carter took no actions … She called no one.  She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”

Moniz also said the case was not legally novel since 200 years ago, a state prison inmate was prosecuted for convincing a man facing the death sentence to hang himself in his cell six hours before he was to be executed.  Moniz also noted that Roy had a long and troubled psychiatric history that included multiple suicide attempts — but each time he stopped and sought out help from his family and friends.

Moniz set sentencing for Aug. 3.  She faces up to 20 years in prison if given the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

I would be shocking if the judge here decided to impose a sentence anywhere near the applicable 20-year max. I am inclined to guess a prison sentence in the range of a year or two will be what the juvenile judge here will be considering. But I have not followed this case and the evidence closely, so I am really judge guessing here based on the nature of the crime and the offender. And I am interested to hear if others have more informed (or uninformed) views on what a fair and effective sentences in this case would look like.

June 16, 2017 at 12:02 PM | Permalink


We had this exercise for Anthony Weiner. An update: "Weiner will be sentenced in Manhattan Federal Court on Sept. 8 for his sexting with a 15-year-old high school student." [NY Daily News]

The case here seems ripe for appeal. A year or two sounds like a reasonable guess.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 16, 2017 12:54:50 PM

I think a year or two is probably too light for such callous disregard for someones life. But there's a lot we don't know from this post. Depending on the history of the offender and her motivation.

Posted by: rsteinmetz70112 | Jun 16, 2017 1:20:54 PM

are you kidding .. people always are yelling: "jump" to folks going off a bridge .. etc .. cannot be a crime ..

even in this case .. she did nothing to put him in that situation ..

Posted by: alba | Jun 16, 2017 1:35:39 PM

For 1000 years of jurisprudence, the voluntary act of the suicide victim broke the chain of causation of the suicide.

In suicide, people want to scapegoat others, whether girlfriends on line, or treating doctors. I oppose all suicide tort litigation, and certainly criminal charges. The sole exception is a physician who physically assists a patient to kill himself, in a state where physician assisted suicide is prohibited, handing a person a gun, injecting the person with a poison, pushing them off a roof.

As with other catastrophes, multiple factors operate, and most are not under the control of the defendant. The most powerful is mental illness, most of which are familial. The second most powerful factor is intoxication, especially by alcohol. Then comes family relationships. I would have gone after the family as a major factor.

As to the judge's, "...Miss Carter took no actions … She called no one...," I have a Massachusetts byline, not a Vermont byline. To my knowledge, there is no duty to rescue in that state. ( https://www.malawforum.com/content/duty-rescue-under-ma-law )

So the defendant is being scapegoated for major factors not under her control, in violation of Fifth Amendment procedural due process right to a fair hearing.

In addition, she is being subjected to outcome bias, another violation of her due process right. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outcome_bias) The failure to raise this argument should be lawyer malpractice because it is ubiquitous.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 16, 2017 2:08:59 PM

Joe. "A year or two sounds like a reasonable guess." Without breaching your privacy, can you tell us if you had any legal training?

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 16, 2017 2:16:22 PM

Not knowing all of the options that the judge has, I am going to guess at what a judge would do in my state with a similar situation.

Here, we have something called split jurisdiction. The judge can a period of juvenile detention along with an adult sentence. The offender initially serves the juvenile detention with the adult sentence suspended. If the offender successfully completes the juvenile detention, they receive probation on the adult sentence. If they fail to successfully complete the juvenile detention, they have to serve the adult sentence. My hunch is that the judges here would use that provision to impose something like a 6-8 year sentence with placement in DYS for 1-2 years and the option to suspend the adult sentence if the defendant successfully completes the juvenile detention.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 16, 2017 3:04:58 PM

What she did is more disgusting than Bernie Madoff, so I'd give her one more year than whatever Madoff got.

Posted by: killers are worse than bankers | Jun 16, 2017 4:57:08 PM

@tmm mentioned the split jurisdiction, which is what I thought she might get given that she is a "youthful offender." However, after further review it appears that the DYS sentence can only be until the offender turns 21. It looks like Carter turns 21 in August of this year and it appears that her sentence will be handed down in Aug. I didn't realize she was 17 when this happened and that the prosecutor filed the "youthful offender" notice as a way of allowing an adult sentence as opposed to a juvenile delinquent sentence. Granted, the case is still in juvenile court and the policy booklet for judges in juvenile court stresses different reasons for sentencing then strictly punishment.

According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Guidelines it looks like Carter would be in the 40-60 month cell (I am assuming she has no criminal history). The guidelines appear to advisory though and there are a series of mitigating and aggravating factors the judge can consider. In my view (which lacks a lot of relevant information that only the judge would have) these factors kind of even out. The judge can sentence below the guidelines by articulating reasons but the state can appeal and the judge can sentence above the guidelines but the defendant can appeal.

With that said it would appear, at least from my reading, that a split sentence is a possible option. I believe this is only possible though with a county jail sentence (max 30 months) and not with a state prison sentence. This seems important to me as I would think a split sentence with a long term of probation would meet a number of the sentencing purposes for juvenile court. If a split sentence were allowed with a state prison sentence then the judge could do a 5 yr suspended sentence with Carter being required to serve a year followed by a term of probation of 4 years. If a split prison sentence is not allowed then the other alternative would be a 2.5yr suspended county jail sentence with a year to serve followed by probation. I simply don't know enough about the possible options the judge has to know what can and cannot be done here. Broadly speaking though, I would think that around 5 years suspended with a relatively short (9-18 months) incarceration period and community supervision might be a good touch here. I would imagine the pre-sentencing investigation will matter a lot with regards to Carter's mental state. Also, I believe there is a statutory provision in MA that allows the defense to file a motion seeking a psychiatric review prior to sentencing, which could lead to commitment in a mental health facility. Basically, way too many unknown variables (at least for me) to give an exact number.

Lastly, I think it is incredibly important to point out that judges in MA have life tenure. This is one of the only states that has this selection method (it may be the only, or NJ might have it too). To me this matters given the national attention that this case has received. The judge does not have an electoral incentive to hand down a higher sentence so as not to jeopardize a future reelection run. Given that he is a juvenile judge and as such is more attuned to the juvenile sentencing philosophy and that he lacks the electoral connection of an elected judge, I think it will be a modest sentence.

I of course could be completely wrong.

Posted by: sean | Jun 16, 2017 7:21:40 PM

I think of the movie Psycho. For an hour, we follow a dull couple of adulterers. Then, out of nowhere, in the greatest, and most shocking scene in horror movie history, the lady is repeatedly stabbed by a transvestite who stored his deceased mother upstairs.

When I discuss the study of law, I say, every turn of the page of every law book is as shocking as that scene.

An Olympic swimmer watches a 2 year old drown in a pool at his feet. No liability.

An Olympic swimmer jumps in and rescues the drowning 2 year old. Pulling him up, he bumps the child's head against the edge of the pool. Liable. Maybe even sue the pool maker, and the society of pool makers for guideline maker liability. To deter. To deter what? To deter the saving of a life.

You people are nuts. You need to be beaten with a stick. You are just bad people.

However, that is the law as it is.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 16, 2017 8:34:23 PM

This guy was inclined to do it anyway, to allow someone remotely to talk you into it, when all you gave to do is turn the phone off.

Yes she was culpible, a yr ir two based on her age suffices. Trump brigade would give her life, if they could stretch the guidelines that far

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jun 16, 2017 10:36:43 PM

And I think it will be interesting to see if this is one of the very rare cases SCOTUS takes on direct review. Certainly the speech at issue does not appear to fit any of the usually recognized 1A exceptions. Incitement is closest but even that seems a stretch on the imminence prong.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 16, 2017 10:46:14 PM

I am going to invent a duty. However, here is a potential one.

In the greatest achievement in psychiatry of the 20th Century that no one knows about, not even psychiatrists, the prisons of the United States dropped their suicide rate by 80%, at no expense, with no new staffing, no programs, no treatment. It was not done by psychiatrists, but by prison wardens. Eyesight supervision. Period.

This victim tried to off himself several times. His brain was not working right. His family had a duty to maintain eyesight supervision. Instead he was alone. He drove a truck. he found access to an engine. This is a ridiculous fuck up by the family. His psychiatrists should have informed them of this sole tactic to prevent suicide. His psychiatrist should have placed him on a major tranquilizer for his false belief that death would solve his problems. Once his depression had been more adequately treated, more aggressively treated, there is a 100% chance, with no known exception in history, that he would be glad he had not killed himself.

So the multi-factorial analysis to catastrophes applies to suicide as well.

Imagine dropping the national suicide number of 35000 people by 80% at no additional cost. Stop the bullshit of hotline, and talking. Stop the stupid hand wringing by toxic left wing assholes.

I do not want to diverge here into the aggressive and proper management of suicide, except to say, the wardens of the prisons of the United States discovered it, and it costs nothing. It should be a standard of due care for professionals and for the families of the suicidal.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 17, 2017 2:15:14 AM

"seems a stretch on the imminence prong"

The argument was that there was a direct imminence: "had left the truck, she ordered him to return." It would be somewhat different if she encouraged him over a span of time at school or something. People do encourage, "incite" in some sort of way, various things there that should not be criminal or at least it would be troubling if it was.

But, here, he was in the act and she incited him into doing it. That's the allegation at least. Now, there might be an absolute argument. That is, even if she was on a bridge with a mentally ill person and shouted "jump you asshole! you have no reason to live! stop being so weak!" that she should be be prosecuted.

Anyway, thinking this might be incitement doesn't really answer it for me since you are prosecuting her & possibly giving her a long sentence. If you are going to put her in jail, especially given her age, for 5-10 years, things should be pretty clear. Some doubt there matters. I think all these factors would warrant a low sentence and I am wary about prosecuting her for involuntary manslaughter at all. OTOH, nothing at all is not free from concern either. That sounds wishy-washy, but it's a troubling case.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 17, 2017 10:39:12 AM

I believe she will get a probationary sentence. she was extraordinarily callous based in the publicly available information but finding criminal liability here potentially sets a dangerous and unworkable precedent. I would have to, admittedly, study Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter law more to know where the judge was right to find causation. It seems her suggestion to get back in the truck was the key to his ruling. I am unaware if she has shown any remorse but 17 year olds are not the most thoughtful people in the world

Posted by: Angry bear | Jun 17, 2017 2:27:12 PM

Joe. Wishy washy? Not you.

Was there an intentional act of suicide? Was the defendant a doctor who provided or rigged the means of suicide?

I have been browbeating the lawyers here for years. They have not been "following my instructions and making themselves competent."

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 17, 2017 3:44:51 PM

Reading the story in the paper today one thing that really stands out is when the judge said she had some obligation to get help. This was covered but don't know where she had some legal obligation to get help. Is this the last episode of Seinfeld?

Posted by: Joe | Jun 17, 2017 4:19:48 PM

Reading the story in the paper today one thing that really stands out is when the judge said she had some obligation to get help. This was covered but don't know where she had some legal obligation to get help. Is this the last episode of Seinfeld?

Posted by: Joe | Jun 17, 2017 4:19:51 PM

The last episode of Seinfeld had to move to Vermont.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 17, 2017 7:42:11 PM

Without analyzing MA law, my first impression was that the judge's emphasis on the failure to seek help was an attempt to jump the supervening cause issue: She goaded him, he got back in the suicide chamber (the supervening cause), she failed to seek help (the last clear chance).

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jun 17, 2017 9:48:08 PM

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