The attorney for one of six South Hadley High School students accused of bullying Phoebe Prince in the months leading up to her suicide is asking for highly personal information about her, a move decried by a former prosecutor and victims advocates as “unconscionable.”
In a six-page motion filed in Northampton Superior Court, Terrence M. Dunphy, the lawyer for Austin Renaud, asks for the names of any physicians, psychologists or rape counselors Prince saw; any medical and psychological records viewed by the prosecutor; details of any prior allegations of rape or abuse by Prince; and a statement as to whether her family had been the subject of a Department of Children and Families investigation.
I value both my iPod and my nightly conversations with my daddy for both different yet similar reasons. My iPod is stimulating to my body as I can't help but move along to the beat, it is also the soundtrack of my life, I have a song for every moment and mood of my day. Without it I would be lost. Its also therapeutic for me I find it easy to relate to the lyrics in music and let them wash away any emotion I'm feeling. As for my nightly conversations with my daddy, I treasure them dearly, they stimulate my mind to no end. He has increased my knowledge of different dialects, cultures, religions and politics. I learn about the world around me even though I don't leave my kitchen table.
Both my iPod and my conversations with my daddy make me think, one with its thoughtful lyrics that I relate to helps me deal with my own personal problems. My nightly conversations make me think about other people and the world that I'm in. I become more emotionally and intellectually mature through both these activities. Although I still value such items that don't have such significant effects on me. Sometimes I love just walking around in my favorite heels and feeling like the most confident girl in the world, but mostly I just like sitting back and discussing politics with my dad
I get into my pink fluffy onesie my feet tingle as they rub off the soft cushioned fabric. I head downstairs into the kitchen. The walls our heath green with various paintings of vegetables. I live in an old country house with a barn door and all the furnishings to boot. My fathers sitting at the dining table reading a thriller type novel as per usual with a half glass full of white wine next to him. The fire is roaring and the smell of hydrangea's wafts through the air. I curl up on a chair adjacent from my father making sure to be cosily tucked in near the fire. He puts down his book and says, "Now what is on your mind tonight my dear?" From there on we start a heated debate about almost anything. Our conversations range from sex, drugs and rock and roll to matters of great importance such as ancient religions, politics and criminal justice. No subject is off limits with me and my father.
Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another? Is it really fair to lay the burden of Phoebe's suicide on these kids?
District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel believes it is. The most serious charge against five of the teenagers—Sean, Ashley Longe, Kayla Narey, Sharon Chanon Velazquez, and Flannery Mullins—is civil rights violation with bodily injury. Defense lawyers expect Scheibel to argue that Phoebe's civil rights were violated because she was called an "Irish slut"—a denigration of her national origin—and because the bullying interfered with her right to an education. The bodily injury, the defense lawyers say, is Phoebe's death by suicide. The maximum penalty for this charge is 10 years in prison. The teens are also charged with other crimes, including criminal harassment and stalking. All six teens have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe's death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn't have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset.
I've wrestled with how much of this information to publish. Phoebe's family has suffered terribly. But when the D.A. charged kids with causing Phoebe's death and threatened them with prison, she invited an inquiry into other potential causes. The whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe's death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable. The charges against the students show how strong the impulse is to point fingers after a suicide, how hard it is to assess blame fairly, and how ill-suited police and prosecutors can be to punishing bullies.
The narrative that's emerged since Phoebe's death is that because she was new to the school and popular with boys, a pack of jealous, predatory kids—"the South Hadley Six"—went after her en masse. But that's not the story the police interviews tell, and it's not how many of the students I talked to see it. Even kids who are relieved that Phoebe's death has pushed the school to do more to prevent bullying don't recognize the storyline that took hold in the media. "I'm upset and angry that bullying wasn't taken more seriously here before this," says Nina, almost 16, who was taunted for being a "poser" by a group of girls in middle school. (I have changed the names of kids who talked to me but have not already been identified in the press.) But Phoebe's death "has been turned into this Lifetime movie plot. It's so unlike what actually happened."
What actually happened, in the eyes of many of the students I've talked to, is that Phoebe got into separate conflicts with different kids. That doesn't excuse the other kids' bad behavior in response to Phoebe's actions. But it was one source of the trouble. Social scientists generally define bullying as repeated acts of abuse that involve a power imbalance. Is that what happened to Phoebe? "In the end you can call it bullying," says one adult at the school. "But to the other kids, Phoebe was the one with the power. She was attracting guys away from relationships." (Because of the hyper-publicity surrounding this case, I was able to talk to staff at the school only on condition of anonymity.)
I asked Joseph Kennedy, who teaches criminal law at UNC at Chapel Hill, what he thought about this statement from Elizabeth Scheibel, the prosecutor in the Phoebe Prince case, in response to my piece: "As a matter of law, the existence of a victim's disability does not legally excuse a defendant's criminal actions. Under many statutory schemes it serves to aggravate the offense, rather than mitigate it."
For all the legally minded folk out there, here is Kennedy’s interesting and helpful response:
That is true, as far as it goes, but is also true that the prosecutor must prove that the defendant was also a cause in fact and a proximate cause of any result required for an offense
Voluntary harm-doing ordinarily cuts off causation. If suicide is an abnormal response to the injury, then no causation. The egg-shell crime victim [the concept of the extra-fragile victim, from tort law] usually involves a particular susceptibility to physical injury (i.e. a hemophiliac bleeding to death). Suicide in response to insults would ordinarily be considered unforeseeable and thereby outside of proximate causation. Similar issues also arise with respect to the mental state of the defendant. A defendant who did not know of a victim's particular vulnerability might not have the mental state of knowingly (or perhaps even recklessly or negligently) causing a certain result
Why don't we cut to the chase, how about from now on we take every teen who does something we don't like over to Davids house for target practice? It would be the definition of win/win.
Blaming the Victim
Posted: July 22, 2010 at 1:38 PMBy Emily Bazelon
Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel responded to my piece about the death of Phoebe Prince. Here’s her quote:
Ms. Bazelon’s article suggests that Phoebe's internal struggles alone caused her death and it is unfair to hold these defendants accountable for their behavior. As a matter of law, the existence of a victim’s disability does not legally excuse a defendant’s criminal actions. Under many statutory schemes it serves to aggravate the offense, rather than mitigate it.
I didn’t say that Phoebe’s internal struggles alone caused her death. I do think the six kids charged should be held accountable for their behavior—but through school discipline, not through the criminal justice system. And in fact, they’ve been held accountable and then some.
Scheibel is right that a victim’s disability doesn’t technically excuse a defendant’s actions. That’s the lawyerly response. But the issue here is prosecutorial discretion. It was Scheibel’s decision to bring a 10-year maximum felony charge that blames the kids for Phoebe’s death. This is an extremely unusual response to suicide and to bullying. The law professors I talked to said they couldn’t think of another case like this one. Scheibel’s decision to bring these charges was heavy-handed prosecutorial indiscretion.
A Boston Herald article and some Slate commenters have accused me of “revictimizing the victim.” They point to one particular line in the story: "Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her" as evidence that I am blaming her for the events that led to her death.
I of course did not write this story to turn the blame back on Phoebe, nor excuse the bullies, especially for their behavior on her last day. But in this case, there are six other kids whose futures are on the line, and the prosecutor is directly blaming five of them for Phoebe's death. With stakes this high, it is necessary to put Phoebe’s behavior in context and explain the many complicated factors that led up to her suicide. It is still a tragic and unhappy story, but not the same, simple, tragic story the media has wanted to portray.
Like almost all of us, Phoebe wasn't entirely passive and she also wasn't merely a victim. She was a person who had social power some days and none others, and who seems to have suffered from a terrible mental illness that left her especially vulnerable. It's complicated, and if we want to really understand what happened to her, and to really unpack bullying more generally, we need to make room for a more complex set of dynamics.
In the Herald, Darby O’Brien disputes one fact in my story: that Phoebe’s parents were separated. I imagine that’s complicated, too. For my statement, I relied on multiple accounts from people close to Phoebe in the records, as well as my own interviews. I respect Darby, and on many aspects of this case, I think he and I agree. When we talked in June and again this morning, he said: “It’s really hard to believe the six kids got these charges—I think they’re carrying way too much blame. In the end, it will be clear, everyone failed that kid.”
Was Phoebe Prince Once a Bully?
Did her school in Ireland turn a blind eye to early warnings of her troubles?
By Emily Bazelon
Updated Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010, at 7:37 AM ET
Phoebe Prince on the social network site BeboIn January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after being bullied at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Six students have been criminally charged in connection with her death; their cases go to court in September. Last month, I wrote a long article explaining why the story of Phoebe's death is more complicated than the narrative that had taken hold in the media—that Phoebe had been tortured for months by a pack of mean girls. I argued that the serious and unusual felony charges brought against the six teens represent prosecutorial overreach, given that Phoebe had mental health troubles before the bullying began, that she was caught up in conflicts that other South Hadley kids saw as "normal girl drama," and that the bullying, while wrong, was not the "relentless" three-month campaign the district attorney described.
Before Phoebe moved to South Hadley last fall, she lived with her family in Ireland. After my story was published, I heard from parents in Ireland whose kids attended seventh and eighth grade with Phoebe at a private school called Villiers. They helped me fill in the chapter of Phoebe's life that preceded her move to the United States with her mother and sister. The Irish parents talked to me because they saw a connection between the problems Phoebe had in South Hadley and ones she had at Villiers. They feel that Phoebe didn't get the help she needed from adults at that school—help that might have made a difference for her. It's a feeling Phoebe's parents have said they share.
This is all incredibly sad—heartbreaking. Rebecca’s suicide and its aftermath are reminiscent of the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince and its aftermath. Phoebe died in South Hadley, Mass., in January 2010. A zealous prosecutor, Elizabeth Scheibel, went on a crusade, bringing criminal charges against six teenagers that held them directly responsible for causing her death. Months later, after interviewing many students and adults at Phoebe’s school who said the prosecution’s version of events was misleading and oversimplified, I read through hundreds of pages of court files, thinking I would finally understand the basis for the charges. The opposite happened. I only felt more baffled. And also dismayed, on behalf of the teenagers who because of the criminal charges had become the focus of an unrelenting barrage of attacks and anger, online and in person.
In both of these stories, the point is not that Katelyn and Guadalupe, or the older teenagers accused of bullying Phoebe, weren’t at fault. They were involved in a social conflict—drama—and at times they acted meanly. But holding them responsible for a suicide, by bringing criminal charges, is unwarranted and unjust. Pesta writes that Judd told her he felt a “moral obligation to raise awareness.” That is no kind of reason for charging a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old with a felony. You don’t plaster their photos all over the news and threaten them with a maximum penalty of five years in prison to “raise awareness.” Judd also had the temerity to say: "No one wants to criminalize children” and “our desire was to make sure these children got counseling.” Do I even need to say that these are empty, self-serving pieties?
I think it's human nature to want to hold someone responsible for a situation like this
The important thing to notice here is not that one guy did wrong, it is that the system allowed him to do wrong for a long time...
Grady Judd’s tendency to overdo it isn’t news to the voters who elected him. At the outset of his career, a deputy was killed in the line of duty, and other officers emptied their guns into the suspect, shooting him 68 times. Asked why, Judd said, “because we ran out of bullets.” In 2007, he boasted of arresting a man for running an Internet pornography site out of his home. An expert called the porn “run-of-the-mill erotica available anywhere on the Internet to anyone who wanted it.” Judd is also the sheriff who took the basketball hoops out of the local jail and stopped supplying inmates with underwear. A federal judge sharply criticized him last year for using pepper spray on detained juveniles. “Polk County is the only county in Florida so far to detain children and teens charged as juveniles under adult jail standards as opposed to those tailored for juvenile detention,” the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out.
It isn't "the system", it's the voters who allow him to remain in his position.