Read the rest of Emily Bazelon’s series on cyberbullying.
The criminal cases against six teenagers that followed the suicide of Phoebe Prince are over.
In a second day of hearings, three more teens admitted facts to support misdemeanor offenses. They each received probation and community service. And Judge Daniel J. Swords continued each of their cases, which means that if they complete their probation successfully, they will have clean records. The serious felony charges against them were dropped.
Without a hearing, prosecutors also dropped the outstanding charge against a fourth teen, Austin Renaud, who was never accused of bullying Prince but who was indicted for statutory rape based on allegations that he had sex with Prince when she was 15 and he was 18—an accusation he has consistently denied.
The tense, at times tearful proceedings that packed a juvenile court in Hadley, Mass., began with the hearing for Sharon Chanon Velazquez, now 17. Velazquez was charged with serious felonies after reports that she participated last year in the bullying of Prince at South Hadley High School, when Prince was a 15-year-old freshman and Velazquez a sophomore. Velazquez admitted to harassing Prince. Prosecutor Steven Gagne set forth the facts agreed to by the defense and the prosecution. Early in 2010, he said, Velazquez approached Prince in a hallway at school and called her a disparaging name, loud enough for other students to hear. Then on Jan. 8, Velazquez approached Phoebe in the lunchroom, called her names again, and also aggressively and loudly told her to stay away from Flannery Mullins’ boyfriend, Austin Renaud. Later that day, Gagne said, Velazquez again approached Prince, this time in her Latin class. “Velazquez berated Prince in front of other students,” Gagne said, and one student witness said Prince was “physically upset.” Prince told one of the vice principals at South Hadley High what had happened. When he spoke to Velazquez, she admitted confronting Phoebe in Latin class.
Flannery Mullins, now 18, admitted to disturbing a school assembly (meaning a gathering of students) and to a misdemeanor civil rights violation, although for the second offense, she largely took responsibility for Velazquez’s actions. In January 2010, Gagne said, Mullins heard rumors that Renaud had had a romantic relationship with Prince. During PE class on Jan. 6, Mullins “vocally expressed frustration at this development.” Prince was not present, but Mullins told one classmate that “someone ought to kick her ass.” She told her gym teacher she was angry as well. These facts supported the charge of disrupting a school assembly, meaning gym class, Gagne said.
Between Jan. 8 and Jan. 10, the prosecutor continued, students heard Mullins make disparaging comments about Prince. He continued, “Velazquez was overheard telling Mullins she was willing to hit Prince or get someone else to do it,” When school administrators talked to Velazquez, she said she was sticking up for her friend, “though she said Flannery hadn’t told her or asked her to do anything on her behalf.” Because of rumors of Mullins’ anger, Gagne said, Prince skipped classes and went to the nurse’s office. This interfered with her right to a public education, which constitutes a civil rights violation, according to the prosecutor.
Ashley Longe, also 18, admitted to harassing Prince as the basis for a misdemeanor offense. Gagne said that Longe yelled insulting remarks at Prince in the library of South Hadley High at lunchtime on the day of her death, Jan. 14, 2010. She also yelled at Prince in the hallway at dismissal time. When she saw Prince walking home alone, Longe threw an empty drink can at her from a car. The can did not hit Prince.
Phoebe’s mother spoke in court today, as she did on Wednesday at the similar resolution of the cases of two other teens charged in connection with Prince’s death. For Longe, alone among the six teens, she had kind words. “Yesterday, I met with Ashley Longe,” O’Brien said. “Although I’m not dismissing how she treated Phoebe, she from the outset has been the only one to acknowledge her actions.” O’Brien said she didn’t want to discuss what she and Longe had talked about, but continued, “I am very satisfied that the accountability and genuine remorse we’ve been asking for since Jan. 14 has been offered to me by Ashley Longe.”
Earlier, by contrast, O’Brien accused Velazquez of “terrifying” Phoebe. “Could she never have stopped, taken a breath, and realized that it’s not right to cause another human being such a high level of distress and fear?” O’Brien asked. She also accused Velazquez of saying, after Price’s suicide, that she did not care that Prince was dead. The statement left Velazquez sobbing. After the hearing, Velazquez’s lawyer denied that Velazquez said anything like this. He had not seen O’Brien’s statement before the hearing. The accusation also appears nowhere in the DA’s account of Velazquez’s misconduct. Her lawyer emphasized that she admitted only to the fact pattern laid out by Gagne at the hearing. “I said from Day One that the charges trying to hold her criminally accountable for the death of Phoebe Prince would be dismissed or that she would be acquitted,” he said. “That’s what happened today.”
Mullins’ lawyers issued a statement on behalf of her and her family expressing “their deepest sympathy” to the family of Prince, “whose death we all acknowledge was a tragedy on many different levels.” The statement continues: “Today’s plea is an acknowledgment that we need to act more civilly and more compassionately toward each other in our daily lives. … [It] is also an acknowledgement by the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office that these matters were overcharged.”
Elizabeth Scheibel, the district attorney who brought the original felony charges, and who has since left office, disagreed. In a statement, she called the charges “appropriate.” The new DA, David Sullivan, also defended the charges at a press conference.
And yet the question remains: If prosecutors thought they could show that the five teens indicted on a felony civil rights charge caused Prince’s suicide, why did they let the kids walk with probation, and in every case but one (Sean Mulveyhill’s), with the promise of a future clean record? If they didn’t think they could prove that, why did they make such a shattering, attention-getting accusation?
The American Bar Association says that prosecutors should only file charges when they know they have sufficient admissible evidence to support a conviction. * After more than a year of covering this case, it’s hard for me to square that duty with the way these cases unfolded. “If you bully someone to death, that’s murder,” explained Joseph Kennedy, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when I called him earlier this week. “But if you bully someone, and then they kill themselves, and that’s not something you anticipated, that’s not a crime.” Though the DA’s office will not say so, perhaps this week’s resolution means that prosecutors had to accept this assessment.
Correction, May 9, 2011: This sentence originally stated that “prosecutors are ethically bound to bring only charges they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Massachusetts ethical standards state that prosecutors may bring charges that are supported by probable cause. The American Bar Association has a higher bar. (Return to the corrected sentence.)