The Involuntary Manslaughter conviction 6 weeks ago of Michelle Carter, in the texting-suicide death of Conrad Roy III, has generated international attention. I’ve written previously in my Massachusetts criminal law blog about why I believe this conviction was sound and supported by both the law and the facts. I’m writing this post today in my Massachusetts Injury Law blog, because a twist has developed in this, involving civil law, not criminal.
Yesterday, a Sentencing Hearing was held before the judge who found her guilty in June of Involuntary Manslaughter in this case, Massachusetts Juvenile Court judge Lawrence Moniz. I joined host Aaron Keller at Dan Abrams’ LawNewz broadcast yesterday for over two hours of live analysis to examine and discuss Carter’s conviction in this case, and the sentence she received yesterday from Judge Moniz. That criminal sentence was especially lenient, but did not surprise me.
Some background on sentencing issues, first. The relevant statute in Massachusetts provides for a maximum of 20 years’ incarceration upon a conviction of Involuntary Manslaughter. The prosecution (Bristol County District Attorney’s Office) asked for a range of 7 to 12 years’ incarceration – in state prison. Carter’s defense attorney asked the judge to impose no prison time at all, but instead only five years’ probation. Absent a statute that imposes mandatory minimum sentences upon a conviction, which removes all discretion from a judge, the judge retains discretion in sentencing, between the minimum and the maximum. Give that this case was in juvenile court, that range runs from no incarceration at all, to a maximum of 20 years in a state prison.
The judge sentenced Carter to a mere 2 ½ years (30 months) – importantly, in a county House of Correction and not in a state prison where much more serious (felony level) violent criminals are incarcerated. Normal conditions of probation will apply, including that Carter have no contact whatsoever with the Roy family, that she not travel outside Massachusetts, and that she surrender any passport she may have. Again, this length of this sentence did not surprise me, but two events following that sentence, did: 1) The judge then suspended (reduced) the sentence by one-half, to just 15 months, and then further 2) Allowed a defense motion to stay (essentially, stop) any incarceration at all, until Carter’s appeals run through the Massachusetts state court system. In other words, Carter walked out of court free yesterday, and will remain so for perhaps 1 ½ to 2 years from now, when all her appeals through the Massachusetts state court system become exhausted. And after that, she has the right to appeal the sentence in the federal courts. Surprisingly, the judge made these very lenient decisions while going to lengths to state openly that he found no compelling excuses (such as “mental illness”) for Carter’s deliberate conduct.
As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I was very surprised the judge reduced a 30 month sentence to just 15 months in a House of Correction, and then stayed (temporarily froze) that 15 months. Naturally, young Conrad Roy III’s family is beyond angry and hurt beyond what they were previously. That’s not hard to understand. The victim’s father, Conrad Roy Jr, and young Roy’s sister gave tearful Victim Impact Statements to the judge, before his ruling.
To the civil law issues: Earlier today, it was announced that Roy’s mother, Lynn Roy, has filed a $4.2 wrongful death lawsuit against Carter, alleging that her son’s death was “caused by the defendant’s negligence and wanton and reckless conduct.” (This language reflects the standard by which Carter was criminally convicted of young Roy’s death.) Why would Conrad’s mother file such a suit? To hopefully receive monetary damages from Michelle Carter for Carter’s being responsible for her son’s death. Suits like these, following a criminal conviction of someone for causing someone’s death, are not very frequent, but they have become increasingly common following the families of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown suing OJ Simpson for causing the deaths of Simpson and Brown. In that case, a civil jury ordered Simpson to pay millions to the families of Simpson and Brown. To date, it’s not clear how much money those families have received from OJ Simpson.
The fairly obvious problem with Ms. Roy’s suit against Michelle Carter, is that Carter is a 20 year-old person with likely next to no income or assets. As a Boston Massachusetts plaintiffs’ injury attorney, I sue many defendants for civil damages on behalf of my clients, but there’s a major hitch: In 99.5% of these cases, whether they are Massachusetts motor vehicle cases, Massachusetts construction site cases, Massachusetts supermarket injury cases, Massachusetts slip & fall cases, Massachusetts medical malpractice cases, or several other types of injury cases, there is a liability insurance policy that has insured the defendant. That is the source of financial compensation to pay for plaintiffs’ damages, once we have obtained either a settlement on behalf of the plaintiff, or a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
With Carter, the most likely source of money to pay for any judgement or settlement that the Roy family might receive, would be a homeowner’s insurance policy that her parents might have at their home, where Michelle Carter presumably lives. Without an insurance policy to tap into alleging her “negligence and/or reckless conduct,” other financial resources would likely be limited to any inheritances that Carter might receive in the future. Carter’s future earnings are, of course, a possible target to satisfy any civil judgement or settlement that the Roy family may obtain, but I highly doubt that those earnings would ever be appreciable or adequate to satisfy a judgement or settlement in a case seeking $4.2 million in damages. This unlikelihood is made even stronger given the fact that judge Moniz’ sentencing order forbids Carter from ever receiving any profits, revenues, payments or financial compensation of any kind from the production or distribution of any books, films, new articles or media publications of any kind related to this homicide and case.
Lynn Roy and the Roy family have said that they intend to use any damages awarded in this civil case, to establish “a fund to memorialize [their son].” I wish the Roy family all of my best wishes, and all the luck in the world, in this civil suit against Michelle Carter. I think this suit is an appropriate response to Carter’s conviction, and may the wind be at their backs throughout this admirable legal effort.