Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
Jeremy Prince would like to forgive the teenagers who are facing criminal charges for bullying his daughter before her suicide last January.
We talked on Wednesday, over the phone, in the first interview either of Phoebe's parents has given since their daughter's death. Prince wanted to tell me about his impression of Phoebe when he visited South Hadley a few weeks before she died. He said it did not match the picture of her as distressed that he thought I painted in a piece I wrote last week. I reported that Phoebe had made a previous suicide attempt when she overdosed in mid-November on the antipsychotic medication Seroquel. (She went into organ failure, according to a school counselor, and was hospitalized for a week.) Jeremy Prince said that while the overdose was a "call for help," he doesn't think of it as a suicide attempt, "though that's open to interpretation."
When Prince saw his daughter in December, he did not think she was depressed. "That's not the girl I saw when I was there for three weeks, by any means," he said. "She was making snowmen, trying on her dress for the cotillion, asking 'Daddy, does this go with this top?' My wife and I had bought a house. Phoebe commandeered the cellar. She wanted me to partition it so she could decorate. It was that sort of Christmas."
Prince said that Phoebe was not taking medication in the weeks before she died. "She hadn't had any Seroquel for over a month," he said. She was seeing a therapist, he explained, who gave him and his wife a written report saying she was at no risk of suicide. "This was when she went back to school in January. But we all know what happened."
Phoebe's suicide took place on Jan. 14, about two weeks after Prince had to leave South Hadley to return to Ireland, where he is a gardener in County Clare. "What I didn't see was Phoebe in school," he acknowledges. "Perhaps if I had, that would have made a big difference. It is the great tragedy of my life that I was not there." It's a regret any parent can understand.
Prince said he and his daughter talked often, about "sex and drugs and everything under the sun. Except there was one thing we couldn't talk about. That was the bullying." It is bullying, of course, that's at the heart of the case against five teenagers who are facing charges that blame them directly for Phoebe's death. The most serious charge they face is the offense civil rights violation with bodily injury, which carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence. Defense lawyers expect District Attorney Elizabeth 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 teens are also charged with other crimes, including criminal harassment and stalking. A sixth student has been charged only with statutory rape. All six have pleaded not guilty.
About the pending charges, Prince said, "That's the district attorney's department." But he distanced himself from any effort to "make an example" of the kids who have been charged. "If someone is punished disproportionately to what they've done, that would be wrong," he said. Prince recognizes, too, that the six kids played different roles. "It is far more complicated, I realize. There are levels of culpability among the kids. You want to see the law acknowledged, and reasonable penalties, but without making an example of them. You want to take their ages into account. There will always be younger ones who go with the flow and join in."
This is a much more temperate position than the one taken by people who say that "Justice for Phoebe" means sending all the kids to prison. Jeremy Prince lost the real Phoebe, not an idea of her, but he is not ready to subscribe to the view that such harsh punishment is necessarily warranted, though he said he will wait to see what the court decides. What he wants, he said, is an apology from the kids he believes hurt his daughter. "I'd dearly like to see admission and contrition, so that I could forgive," Prince said at the end of our conversation. * "If they confessed to the court and said they were sorry, I'd appeal to the court for total leniency. You can go two ways. You can look to the court for revenge or you can look for leniency. The latter path is mine."
Correction, July 30, 2010: Because the writer didn't quite hear Prince right, the sentence previously misstated part of his quote as "mission of contrition" instead of "admission and contrition." (Return to the corrected sentence.)