How will the new prosecutor handle the case against the teens implicated in Phoebe Prince's death?

The new world of online cruelty.
Sept. 15 2010 5:46 PM

The Phoebe Prince Case Is Getting a New D.A.

How will the new prosecutor handle the case against the teens implicated in Prince's death?

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullying

Phoebe Prince.
Phoebe Prince

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—A new district attorney is coming to town in the Phoebe Prince cases. And he'll probably be the prosecutor who decides how to resolve them.

On Tuesday, David Sullivan won election to the D.A.'s office in Hampshire County, the part of Western Massachusetts where criminal charges against five teenagers were filed in connection with Phoebe's suicide. She killed herself last January in the town of South Hadley, and the five students, who went to South Hadley High with her, have been accused of causing her death by bullying her. (A sixth teen has been charged with statutory rape.) Sullivan ran against Michael Cahillane, a protégé of the current D.A., Elizabeth Scheibel. Neither candidate talked during the race about the charges against the South Hadley High kids. But Sullivan criticized Scheibel's office for a notorious spat with a juvenile court clerk-magistrate over a bathroom key (yes, it's called pottygate). The attacks must have hit home, because Sullivan won in a 2-to-1 landslide. He is now the Democratic candidate for D.A., and since no Republican is running to replace Scheibel, he's the one who will take over the case when she steps down in January.

Today in court, it became clear that this handoff will take place before at least two of the criminal cases go to trial. Kayla Narey, 17, and Sean Mulveyhill, 18, appeared with their lawyers and sat quietly while the prosecution and defense agreed to a March trial date for Sean and to a winter or spring trial for Kayla.

Both teenagers are facing multiple charges, including a Massachusetts offense called civil rights violation with bodily injury, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Because Sean is also charged with statutory rape, his case is on a slower track in the court. So the real question today was whether Kayla might be tried while Scheibel is still in office. But Assistant D.A. Elizabeth Dunphy Farris didn't ask for that. She told Judge Judd Carhart that while the presumptive trial date was in October, Kayla's lawyer, Michael Jennings, had requested time to look over new evidence that had been turned over in the case as part of the discovery process. Farris, who has announced that she is leaving the D.A.'s office with Scheibel, said that the parties would reconvene in November or January to set a date for trial. Maybe the new evidence from discovery makes the prosecution's case look weaker, and that helps explain why Farris and Scheibel are willing to walk away from it instead of asking for a trial date before they leave office?

In court, it took only a few minutes to settle the upcoming dates. At the close of the hearing, Kayla and Sean walked out without looking at each other and with their heads bent. (She was wearing a black top and a black and white plaid skirt. He was wearing a black suit and a crew cut.) Michael Jennings, Kayla's lawyer, convened an impromptu press conference on the sidewalk across from the Northampton courthouse. Asked why he was advising Kayla to go to trial, Jennings said, "I would never recommend that a client I truly don't believe committed a crime should plead guilty." He said that Kayla had never actually spoken to Phoebe Prince and that he doesn't think the allegations against her constitute a crime. "For example, for civil rights violation with bodily injury, the prosecution has to show violence or the threat of violence. There's no evidence of that. No evidence that Kayla was around anything like that. The evidence simply doesn't exist." This matches my own analysis of the allegations, based on reading court documents that haven't been made public. Kayla and Sean dated; she got angry with Phoebe over her competing relationship with him. Kayla and Sean were present when another student facing charges, Ashley Longe, yelled "whore" at Phoebe in the library and on the way out of school on the day of Phoebe's death. Ashley was mean, to be sure, and Kayla and Sean may have been part of that. But it's hard for me to see how Kayla committed any crime.

Jennings also noted that to win conviction, the prosecution has to show that Kayla (and the rest of the kids) caused Phoebe's injury—in other words, that they can be held responsible for her decision to kill herself. "That brings in the whole thing of trying to find out what Phoebe's mental state was prior to the event," Jennings said. "Maybe there were a whole lot of causes." According to what Phoebe's mother told the police, her daughter began cutting herself and struggling with depression in 2008 while at boarding school in Ireland. (Phoebe moved with her mother and sister to South Hadley a year ago.) Phoebe also made a serious suicide attempt last November.     

Jennings said that he doesn't think the prosecution introduced to the grand jury enough evidence against Kayla to support her indictment. He is therefore planning to file a motion asking Judge Carhart to dismiss the case against her. That motion is due by mid-January.

Kayla and Sean were in court together Wednesday because they have both been charged as adults. The lawyers for two kids charged as juveniles, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velazquez, went to court today too, and agreed to a protective order that prevents them from disclosing some parts of discovery. Next week, the girls and their lawyers, along with Ashley and hers, will be back in court to ask for a more precise description of the allegations underlying the charges against them.

In the meantime, we can all wonder what David Sullivan will make of these cases when he takes office. "You'll have to ask Mr. Sullivan that," Jennings said. I tried. Sullivan has told me before the election that he couldn't comment on the case yet. "I haven't read the documents. I have to review it all," he said. Fair enough. But soon enough, he'll have to decide where he stands.

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