On Thursday, Michelle Carter was sentenced to serve 15 months in jail for the involuntary manslaughter of her boyfriend in 2014 — but the judge ruled she won’t begin serving time until the appeal she plans to file is resolved.
After her sentencing, her attorney, Joseph Cataldo, said Carter is “absolutely” relieved she will go home today and that the appeals process “could take months, years.”
Still, legal experts PEOPLE spoke with believe the Massachusetts 20-year-old — who had faced up to 20 years in prison — will ultimately serve jail time.
Larry Cunningham, a former prosecutor and vice dean at St. John’s University School of Law in New York, believes the judge’s sentence was “reasonable” because he “did not think she was going to get the maximum sentence but I also didn’t think she would just get away with probation.”
Since she was 17 at the time of boyfriend Conrad Roy III’s death, Carter was charged as a youthful offender, which under state law allows her to be sentenced the same as an adult although she was a minor at the time of the crime.
Cunningham says that while her conduct “was egregious … she was a juvenile when the crime occurred and the whole juvenile justice system is configured for rehabilitation — not punishment.”
Cunningham believes the judge “tried hard to strike the right balance” and expected he would grant the stay “just because of the simple math: appeals take a long, long time, so it’s possible that, by the time it’s finished, she already would have served all of her time — and you can’t give someone back time.”
Like Cunningham, former Boston prosecutor Timothy Burke thinks the verdict will be upheld, telling PEOPLE: “It is truly a unique case based on the facts but the underlying principal of the involuntary manslaughter terms are not that unique.”
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Carter was convicted in June in the death of Roy, who was found dead in his truck after he attached a hose to a portable generator to fill the cab with the carbon monoxide that killed him.
Investigators soon discovered a series of text messages — eventually more than 1,000, according to prosecutors — sent in the week prior to Roy’s death and exchanged between him and Carter, who said that she was his girlfriend.
Among those were ones from her that stated: “You always say you’re gonna do it, but you never do. I just want to make sure tonight is the real thing,” “You just have to do it” and “It’s painless and quick.”
Cunningham says that the “pure volume” of text messages Carter sent to Roy, encouraging him to carry on with his suicide plans, will be key to sustaining the judge’s ruling.
“That’s significant, because that will show her mental state, which is required for this particular crime,” says Cunningham. “The prosecution can’t breathe easy. They will have an uphill battle defending the verdict on appeal because this case raises a number of novel legal issues that will have to be addressed.”
Brad Bailey, a longtime criminal defense attorney and former state and federal prosecutor, says he was surprised Carter did not go immediately to jail, and suspects the judge took her age into consideration when granting the stay.
“I’m thinking it’s more, ‘She’s young, I’m going to give her a little chance to get her affairs in order and to see what the housing arrangements are at the jail to make sure she’s going to be in a protected, segregated unit,’” Bailey says. “That’s what I’m guessing, but normally, yes, when a jail sentence on a felony is imposed, for the most part, people are immediately incarcerated.”
In announcing Carter’s conviction in the bench trial on June 16, Judge Lawrence Moniz said Carter was not convicted for the texts, but rather for her actions on the day of Roy’s death: After Roy exited his truck as it filled with carbon monoxide, Carter told Roy to get back in. As Roy died in the truck, Carter failed to tell anyone what was happening.
Cunningham says it will be interesting to see how Massachusetts’ legislature responds to Roy’s family’s appeals at Thursday’s sentencing to pass a law criminalizing the enticement or assistance of a suicide, which many states already have.
“There is precedent for it,” Cunningham offers. “It is tough to argue against that type of law.”
Burke says the Carter case will impact legislation in the digital age. “The question that has been raised is, ‘Can words kill?,’ and clearly — given the results of the verdict — under theses types of circumstances, the answer is yes,” Burke explains. “By placing another person knowingly in a position of potential harm, the answer is affirmative. That’s what makes this a unique case. She was 30 miles away at the time of [his death] and still had an affect on his conduct.”
Suicide Prevention: What to Know
Experts say some common warning signs of suicide include discussing a desire to die or feeling anxious or hopeless, like a burden, or trapped or in pain; withdrawing from others; extreme mood swings, including anger and recklessness; and abnormal sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little).
Many suicides have multiple causes and are not triggered by one event, according to experts, who underline that suicidal crises can be overcome with help. Where mental illness is a factor, it can be treated.
Reaching out to those in need is a simple and effective preventative measure, experts say.
If you or someone you know is showing warning signs of suicide, consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or seeking help from a professional.
• With reporting by HARRIET SOKMENSUER