SJC Avoids Adopting "Reasonable Juvenile" Standard

In Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, the Supreme Judicial Court declined to decide whether all legal standards involving a "reasonable person" should be applied against children by assessing what a reasonable juvenile of the same age would have done in the same circumstances. The SJC hung its hat on the fact that the trial judge employed a subjective knowledge standard (Michelle Carter actually knew the danger). On this point, trial attorneys should continue to request a reasonable juvenile instruction in any appropriate case and in bench trials should argue for the judge to apply a reasonable juvenile standard in closing. Given what we know about those age 18-25, trial attorneys should also consider asking for a reasonable person of the same age instruction and putting in an expert to explain brain science in the emerging adult population.

The SJC also noted that the trial judge had given "sufficient" consideration to Carter's age of seventeen years and eleven months: "He noted that on the day of the victim's death, she was seventeen years and eleven months of age and at an age-appropriate level of maturity ... "[h]er age or level of maturity does not explain away her knowledge of the effects of her telling [the victim] to enter and remain in that toxic environment, leading to his death."

But this isn't right, or at least it's missing something important.

Researchers have found that young people develop “basic intellectual abilities” (a measure of working memory, capacity to solve academic problems, and verbal fluency) much earlier than they develop “psychosocial maturity” (a measure of impulsivity, risk perception, sensation-seeking, future orientation, and resistance to peer influence). And pyschosocial maturity is incomplete until a person's mid-twenties. Even people 18-21 function similarly to those under 18 in emotional situations and under peer influence. The maturity the Judge described in Carter was related to her academic performance and the manner in which she comported herself in school .This was not a good measure of her psychosocial maturity. Unfortunately, the trial judge also did not permit an expert to educate him on adolescent brain science. And even more unfortunately, the SJC concluded he did not abuse his discretion in excluding that expert.

Finally, the Court seemed to ignore case law interpreting whether an offense qualified as the "infliction" of serious bodily harm under G.L. c. 119, s 54 when it held categorically that manslaughter qualified as such an offense. In previous case law, the SJC had required assessment of the facts of specific cases and did not take a categorical approach.

Anyone who litigates on behalf of young people should read this case and tailor their litigation to find success in this defeat.