NEW YORK (AFP) - A judge on Thursday (Aug 3) sentenced a 20-year-old Massachusetts woman to two and a half years, with 15 months to be served behind bars, for encouraging her teenage boyfriend to make good on plans to kill himself.
A tearful Michelle Carter stood with hands clasped and eyes cast down to hear her fate over the death of Conrad Roy, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in July 2014.
In an extraordinary case seen as breaking new ground in a state with no law against encouraging suicide, Carter swapped hundreds of text messages with Roy, repeatedly urging him to follow through on his plan to kill himself and conceal it from his parents.
The defence argued that Carter, who was 17 years old at the time, was racked with depressive disorders, on anti-depressants and suffered from eating disorders, all of which swayed her judgment.
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She had faced up to 20 years in prison at her sentencing in a juvenile court in Taunton, south of Boston.
But Judge Lawrence Moniz, who convicted Carter of involuntary manslaughter in June, said it was important to balance punishment and rehabilitation for her role in Roy’s death in his pickup truck in a parking lot.
Moniz said that after 15 months behind bars, the balance of her sentence would be suspended until Aug 1, 2022. The sentence was stayed pending expected appeals.
Roy’s father, also named Conrad Roy, accused Carter of exploiting his son’s battle with depression for her own self-aggrandizement.
“How could Michelle Carter behave so viciously and encourage my son to end his life? Where was her humanity?” he asked.
“I pray that his death will save lives one day,” Roy’s mother said in a statement read out by the prosecution, calling for changes in the law to guard against other families enduring the same torment.
The prosecution had recommended a sentence of between seven and 12 years, accusing Carter of deliberately engineering Roy’s death in a bid to seek attention and sympathy.
“Her actions killed Conrad Roy. She ended his life to better her own,” the prosecutor told the court.
“She has not accepted responsibility,” she said. “She has shown no remorse.”
Carter’s lawyer urged the judge for leniency, saying his client, dressed in red pants and a cream blouse, hoped to build a career in real estate after graduating from high school, was still in counselling and was not a danger to the public.
“This is a terrible, terrible tragedy and she very much regrets this,” said Joseph Cataldo, requesting five years of supervised probation attached to conditions such as mental health counselling.
But the case has divided legal opinion on whether Carter’s actions were even enough to secure a conviction under involuntary manslaughter.
In convicting Carter, Moniz said it was her instruction to Roy to get back into the vehicle – during a telephone call after he stepped out – and her failure to sound the alarm that was crucial to the guilty verdict.
Prosecutors said Carter stayed on the telephone listening to her boyfriend as he died in the truck.
“She called no one,” Moniz said in June, despite Carter knowing where Roy was and having his family’s telephone numbers.
“And finally, she did not issue a simple additional instruction: ‘Get out of the truck.’”
He rejected a theory of involuntary intoxication raised by psychiatrist Peter Breggin, a defence witness who testified that Carter’s own medication would have hindered her state of mind.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the prosecution’s theory that she killed Roy with her words, saying in June that the conviction “exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections.”
But David Rossman, law professor at Boston University, said the case was so extraordinary that it was unlikely to open the door to a rash of prosecutions, such as manslaughter cases against doctors treating terminal patients.
“It’s possible,” he told AFP.
“But that would be a careless use of what happened in Massachusetts, because it would be ignoring what the court said.