Read the rest of Emily Bazelon’s series on cyberbullying.
HADLEY, Mass.—Prosecutors still hope to try two of the girls charged in connection with the death of Phoebe Prince together. But they lost their bid today to schedule any trial before January, when a new district attorney will take over the cases.
Thursday’s proceedings took place in juvenile court and involved three of the five teenagers—Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins, and Sharon Chanon Velazquez—who are facing criminal charges based on allegations that they bullied Phoebe before the 15-year-old committed suicide in January in South Hadley, Mass. The teenagers are facing multiple charges, including a Massachusetts offense called civil rights violation with bodily injury, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. (A sixth teen, Austin Renaud, has been charged only with statutory rape.)
The hearing was about timing, which is crucial. That’s because the current D.A.’s office is on its way out. Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris pushed for an early trial date, in December. That would allow her to try the case before her planned retirement, which will coincide with the departure of District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who is stepping down in January. Scheibel’s successor will be David Sullivan, who won the Democratic primary earlier this month and is running unopposed in the November election. But the change in administration wasn’t the reason Dunphy Farris gave Judge Daniel Swords for asking for December. “We anticipate 40 to 50 witnesses for trial,” she said. “A number of them are now in college. It makes sense for the Commonwealth to ask for a December date based on the availability of a number of those witnesses.”
The lawyers for all three defendants objected. “At the end of the day, the constitutional rights of the defendants trump that,” said A.J. O’Donald, Ashley’s lawyer, speaking of the D.A.’s apparent desire to see the case through before leaving office. “That’s what we should be concerned about. Rushing this thing through is not fair to us, Judge.” Alfred Chamberland, Flannery’s lawyer, pointed out that the defense has just begun to review new evidence turned over through the discovery process in the last few weeks. He said he planned to bring in expert witnesses in psychiatry and computer forensics who would need time to become familiar with the case.
Judge Swords sided with the defendants. “There are all sorts of issues here,” he said. “This case isn’t going to get heard in December.” The judge gave the defense until Nov. 1 to file motions in which they plan to argue that he should dismiss the charges for lack of evidence.
Judge Swords also set a Nov. 8 hearing for the question of whether two of the girls, Flannery and Sharon, will be tried together. To join the cases, Dunphy Farris has to show that the girls acted in concert. It’s not clear how the evidence supports that. But if the judge agrees to join the cases, at trial the jury could impute the acts of one girl to the other. So the defense lawyers will surely argue against it.
While the lawyers and the judge parried back and forth for about an hour, Sharon, Flannery, and Ashley sat next to one another on a bench behind their lawyers. (Sharon was wearing a pink shirt with frills. Flannery, in the middle, wore a white Oxford. Ashley’s hair was in a ponytail with bobby pins.) The girls didn’t look at one another.
In the discussion of trial dates and timing, Dunphy Farris told Judge Swords that she is also requesting a December trial date for one of the other three defendants, Kayla Narey, who is 17 and has been charged as an adult. But in pretrial proceedings last week in Kayla’s case, the judge gave the defense until mid-January to file its motion to dismiss for lack of evidence. Dunphy Farris made no move to press for getting Kayla’s case onto the trial docket earlier, which means that it too, will wait until she leaves the D.A’s office. So will the trial of Sean Mulveyhill, 18, also charged as an adult in the case. His case is on a slower track because he has also been charged with statutory rape, as is Austin Renaud’s.
Judge Swords’ decision to postpone any trial until January, at the earliest, means that the resolution of these cases hinges largely on the arrival of Sullivan, the new district attorney. He has not publicly expressed a view of any of the charges stemming from Phoebe’s suicide. When Sullivan takes office, however, these cases will be waiting for him.