Several days ago it became public that the judge who sentenced Dr. Michael Carlson in the vehicular manslaughter case that resulted in the death of Meg Menzies is re-considering his sentence. That is, if she hasn't already changed her mind. For the most accurate accounting of how that has come about read the story in the Richmond Times Dispatch: Doctor sentenced in Meg Menzies' death being considered for early release.
Let me be clear. My issue is not with Dr. Carlson at this point. Dr. Carlson made the senseless decision to drink and drive and ultimately kill Meg Menzies. He showed up for his day in court. He was issued a consequence. That's how the justice system works. It's a system rooted in and one that helps define our country's freedoms. What I didn't realize, though, is that same system also allows for a judge to change her mind a mere six days after issuing the consequence. This was not a change, to my knowledge or anyone else's that I'm aware of, based on a procedural mistake or technicality. It was simply based on a judge who had a change of mind or heart.
The problem as a citizen observing this is when the judge changes her mind, you are left to wonder why. We are left to ask if this is beneficial to the justice system - judges taking the initiative to alter their own decisions 6 days after the fact for what on the surface appears to be nothing other than personal reasons. One of the checks and balances we are blessed with in this country is our voice. We don't have to simply accept questionable decisions without a response. Many times - this likely being one of those cases - that response isn't going to change a thing. That doesn't diminish the responsibility I feel, though, for nonetheless offering a response.
My response is below. It is a letter I will send to the judge in this case, Hanover Circuit Judge Sarah L. Deneke. This same judge openly recognized at the sentencing hearing the many supportive letters she received from the family and friends of Dr. Carlson during the pre-sentencing investigation. Maybe this time it's our turn to send letters. I'm not going to answer that for you. I can only speak for what I'm going to do. I am also hopeful we can pack the courtroom on April 10, 2015 when Judge Deneke will consider the change she's initiated to Dr. Carlson's sentence since the last time we gathered there.
Please know, my letter is just a response. Yes, it is filled with questions and disappointment and frustration with a system, but it doesn't contain ill-will or animosity for anyone.
If you are interested in sending a letter but don't have the time to write one, feel free to copy mine and sign your name to it. You obviously can write your own as well. I will be sending the letter to Judge Sarah L. Deneke. I will send copies of it to Commonwealth Attorney R.E. "Trip" Chalkley III and prosecutor Steve Royalty.
Honorable Judge Sarah L. Deneke
Judge, Hanover Circuit Court
P.O. Box 39
Hanover, VA 23069
Honorable R.E. Chalkely, III, Esquire
P.O. Box 470
Hanover, VA 23069
Stephen B. Royalty, Esquire
Office of the Commonwealth Attorney
P.O. Box 470
Hanover, VA 23069
March 18, 2015
Dear Honorable Judge Deneke,
On February 6th I was present when you sentenced Dr. Michael Carlson to 4 years in prison for his role in the death of Meg Menzies. I listened as the Menzies and Cross families offered their victim impact statements and recounted in sad detail the pain they’ve experienced since losing Meg just over a year ago. I’m sure this was the most difficult part of the judicial process for Meg’s family to endure. Witnessing them suffer through every word was excruciating for the many friends who were there to support them. The only possible consolation that day, especially for Meg’s family, was there was finally closure to the judicial process. No matter what anyone thought of the sentence – I personally thought it was fair considering the sentencing guidelines – the judicial process was over and the family could finally concentrate on healing.
Only the judicial process didn’t end that day.
For reasons unknown to anyone, six days later you suspended imposition of Dr. Carlson's four-year prison term "pending evaluation by the Department of Corrections for the Behavioral Correction Program." You are now going to consider if Dr. Carlson should be allowed to enter a substance abuse program in prison that could reduce by half the four-year sentence you handed down that day. For that reason, this letter is not about Dr. Carlson or Meg Menzies. It’s about the judicial process.
On February 6, you confidently handed down the 4-year sentence to Dr. Carlson. You did so with the benefit of a pre-sentencing investigation report and the testimonies offered that day. You took time out in issuing the sentence to remind – scold in my eyes - prosecutor Steve Royalty that you didn’t need his advice on how to justify a sentence outside of the sentencing guidelines, that it was absolutely your right to do so if you chose to. And you did.
So now I’m left with several questions. What happened between February 6 and February 12 that would lead you to change your mind? How does a very confident and public declaration get changed in the dark and quiet of the night? The citizens of Hanover County and beyond can all speculate about the possible reasons for that change. I’m afraid all of the reasons I come up with call into question the competence of the judicial system at best, and at worst – its integrity.
I also wonder why treating Dr. Carlson’s alcohol problem wasn’t a priority when you issued his original sentence. No one, including Dr. Carlson, hid his struggles with alcohol during the pre-sentencing investigation. And why exactly does the appropriate treatment now need to coincide with the possibility of a reduced sentence.
And finally, how do you explain this to the family who left the courthouse on February 6 with the judicial process behind them, only to now be summoned back for an April 10th hearing where you’ll consider a brand new verdict? One initiated by you. One that will likely require the Cross and Menzies families to wait and wonder for two years while Dr. Carlson undergoes treatment to find out if you will indeed stay committed to your original verdict that called for Dr. Carlson to serve a 4-year sentence. It seems unfair that Dr. Carlson, just six days after your original verdict, was given hope of a dramatically reduced sentence, while the Cross and Menzies families – the victims here – have been sentenced to bear additional burdens.
Maybe there is a reasonable explanation for a judge changing her mind 6 days after issuing a sentence as strongly as you issued the one against Dr. Carlson. I will be attending the April 10 hearing along with many other supporters of the Cross and Menzies families. This time we won’t be supporting the family as they take their final step in the judicial process, only because there are apparently more unexpected steps to come. Instead, I will be there looking for some explanation that will allow me to walk away with restored confidence in a justice system that is, quite frankly, hard to understand at this moment. I know, as you boldly proclaimed to prosecutor Royalty at the sentencing hearing, you are not required to justify anything. But for those of us who can’t help but question the transparency of this process, I hope you will.