As almost everyone on planet earth knows, Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson. On November 29, 2011, Dr. Murray was sentenced to the maximum term of four years in State Prison. How did the judge determine that four years was the appropriate sentence?
The cynical among us might just say that because the deceased was the most famous pop star in the world that the judge would have been crazy to give Dr. Murray anything less than the maximum. Those of that opinion could easily conclude the public expected the maximum and therefore why would the judge do something that would enrage the public and possibly cost him his job in the next election? Those cynical enough to believe that would think the discussion would end right there. But, what did the judge have to do under the law in order to justify the maximum sentence? The answer can be found in the Rules of Court.
The Rules of Court set forth the criteria affecting probation (Rule 4.414). Dr. Murray was technically eligible for probation, no matter how unlikely that might have been as a practical matter. There are two sub-sets to consider: facts that relate to the crime and facts that relate to the defendant.
Factors relating to the crime include, but are not limited to: the nature, seriousness, and circumstances of the crime…., and; whether the defendant was armed or not, and; the vulnerability of the victim, and; whether the defendant inflicted physical or emotional injury, and; the degree of monetary loss…, and; whether the crime was committed because of an unusual circumstance, and; whether the defendant was an active participant, and; whether there was great provocation making unlikely the crime would re-occur, and; whether the crime was sophisticated or professional on the part of the defendant, and; whether the defendant took advantage of a position of trust or confidence to commit the crime.
Facts that relate to the defendant are also important for the judge to consider. These include: prior criminal conduct, prior performance on probation, willingness to comply with the terms of probation, ability to comply with reasonable probation terms, the likely effect of imprisonment on the defendant’s dependents, the adverse collateral consequences on the defendant’s life from the felony conviction, remorsefulness of the defendant, and the likelihood of danger to others if defendant is not imprisoned.
If the judge determines he wants to imprison the defendant he has to select the proper term from the range set forth in the crime itself. In this case it was either two, three, or four years. The court selected the upper, or maximum, term. This is based on any relevant factor including circumstances in mitigation or aggravation. The judge can look to the case record, the probation officer’s report, other reports or statements, and evidence introduced at the sentencing hearing. (Rule 4.420) In effect, the judge could do anything he wanted due to his ability to look at all “relevant” evidence. This is where the judge’s personality, personal and professional background, and own opinion on the state of the evidence weigh heavily on his decision.
As one can see from the above, the four year maximum term was almost a foregone conclusion. The sentencing hearing had to go forward but one could pick out many factors that can be found in the Rules of Court which foretold which way the judge was going to go. No one should have been surprised that Dr. Murray got the maximum. With public sentiment and Dr. Murray’s own lack of remorse why should the judge have given him a break? The answer is clear; there wasn’t any reason to and he got what he must have expected.