A judge’s sentencing of a 20-year-old Massachusetts woman who urged her boyfriend via text to carry out his suicide may have showed leniency but should not have happened at all, legal experts told USA TODAY.
Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz sentenced Michelle Carter to 2 ½ years in prison on a charge of involuntary manslaughter Thursday, but Carter will only serve 15 months of that. She was convicted in June in the 2014 suicide of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck with Carter’s encouragement via text messaging.
When Carter was convicted in June, legal experts expressed concern that the case could set a new legal precedent in which words, and not just actions, are deemed to cause death. It was the conviction and not the sentencing that caused that concern for Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at the Northeastern University School of Law.
“This idea that words can kill is a very controversial one because the criminal law typically punishes physical action. … The drunk driver who plows into somebody or a person who shoots a gun, where you’re consciously disregarding a huge risk,” Medwed said.
Medwed said he never believed it should have been a manslaughter case. “I think Massachusetts needs a specific statute that criminalizes encouraging or coercing suicide,” he added.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts agreed that the case against Carter was not one of manslaughter and expressed anger that the sentencing further sets a dangerous example.
“Mr. Roy’s death is an unspeakable tragedy, and our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends; but while Mr. Roy’s death is truly devastating, it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution,” Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
“There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to persuade someone to commit suicide,” Segal said. “And there should not be any sentence handed down against Ms. Carter for involuntary manslaughter because her conviction for that crime is improper. It exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.”
Regarding the sentencing, Medwed said his impression was that the judge was trying to make sure that Carter, then 17, served time near her home by assigning her to a county and not state facility.
“One interpretation of that is perhaps the judge was thinking that it would be good to keep her close to her support network,” the law professor said.
For juveniles, the purpose of the penal system is to rehabilitate not punish, he said. He pointed out that the judge could have imposed a sentence of up to 20 years if he wanted.
“I think the judge relied a lot on the fact that she was a juvenile when she committed this crime,” Medwed said.