The Phoebe Prince Case
Pretrial motions hint at the strategies of the district attorney and the defense.
Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
HADLEY, Mass.—How will the six teenagers charged in connection with the death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old who killed herself in January, go to trial—together or separately?
Pretrial hearings for the cases began today, and the prosecution suggested that it sees the cases against two of the girls, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velazquez, as inextricably linked, and wants to try the girls together. "We are asking for a trial for those two defendants," said Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, speaking of Flannery and Sharon.
Dunphy Farris said that the prosecution's plan is to charge the two girls "as principal and joint venturers together." When defendants are charged as joint venturers, the idea is that they committed a crime together and so can each be held liable for the other's actions. The classic scenario is a robbery in which one robber holds the gun and the other empties the safe. Prosecutors have to ask the presiding judge for a joint trial of this sort.
Lawyers for Mullins and Velazquez didn't respond to Dunphy Farris' indication that she would make such a request. They'd come to court for a different reason: To argue for access to the medical and educational records of Phoebe Prince. After a conference with Dunphy Farris, the defense lawyers said they were close to reaching an agreement about access to those records, which would include a protective order that would bar the defense lawyers from sharing the discovery with anyone. Judge Daniel J. Swords seemed concerned about privacy and confidentiality. When Dunphy Farris argued that the defense motions requesting access to Phoebe's records had violated state law by quoting extensively from the grand jury minutes, the judge ordered the motions impounded, meaning they will no longer be publicly available. The material the prosecutor was complaining about included long quotes from the police interview of Phoebe's mother, in which she talked about her daughter's history of mental health troubles. Sean Mulveyhill, one of the other teens charged in the case, was also quoted in the motion describing what Phoebe told him about her depression. The defense lawyers included that material to show that Phoebe's records would support their argument that there is an alternate basis for her suicide.
It's not clear how prosecutors will show that the girls acted in concert. Sharon has called herself Flannery's friend. But Sharon also told the police that Flannery had nothing to do with her decision to express anger with Phoebe. According to student witnesses, Sharon yelled at Phoebe to "stay away from people's men," in the school cafeteria on Jan. 6, more than a week before Phoebe's death, and also yelled at her at the beginning of a class. Sharon's mother, Angeles Chanon, has disputed that this makes her daughter in some way responsible for Phoebe's death. After Sharon was indicted, Chanon told the Boston Herald of her daughter's interaction with Phoebe: "She exchanged a couple of words with her. "My daughter never fought with her or said, 'Go harm yourself,' or 'I hate you.' "
Flannery is accused of writing one mean comment about Phoebe on Facebook and following her into a school bathroom, though a student who was a witness says Flannery didn't speak to Phoebe inside, according to that student's interview with the police. "It doesn't appear that Flannery said anything to Phoebe in the bathroom," Flannery's lawyer, Alfred Chamberland, told me over the summer. "Everything Flannery was alleged to have said was never directly to Phoebe." Flannery was upset with Phoebe because of her relationship with Flannery's boyfriend. But so far, the evidence about Flannery's interactions with Phoebe look like scant proof of criminal wrongdoing. You could say that about the bullying-related charges against all of the defendants, and surely their lawyers will. But joint trials look like a bad deal for the kids, because of its implication that they teamed up—a stock bullying image.
If the prosecution does formally request a joint trial, the lawyers may be arguing about this on Sept. 23, when they're due back in court for a general pretrial discussion. Next Wednesday, Sean Mulveyhill, Kayla Narey, and Austin Renaud, who are being charged as adults, are due back in court for their own pretrial hearings. The D.A. hasn't said anything to suggest that she will ask to try them together.
In any case, on Tuesday, this part of Western Massachusetts, Hampshire County, will hold a contested Democratic primary in the upcoming election for district attorney. The current D.A., Elizabeth Scheibel, is a Republican who won't run in November. Since there is no Republican candidate to replace her, next Tuesday's election will determine the winner. Dunphy Farris has also announced her retirement. So the new D.A. may well play a crucial role in determining how these cases play out. There are two candidates to replace Scheibel. Michael Cahillane is a protégé from her office. (He stepped down over the summer to campaign.) David Sullivan is a former trial lawyer and the register of probate for Hampshire County, a family court position. Neither Cahillane nor Sullivan have said anything publicly about what they think of the Phoebe Prince case. That leaves voters here in the odd position of choosing a new district attorney whose views on this unusual, high-profile case they don't know.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Photograph of Phoebe Prince opening a present courtesy Darby O'Brien.