The Phoebe Prince case: Two of the teens charged in connection with Phoebe Prince's suicide resolve their cases.

The new world of online cruelty.
May 4 2011 4:17 PM

"An Acknowledgement of Wrongdoing"

Two of the teens charged in connection with Phoebe Prince's suicide resolve their cases—and receive light penalties.

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullying

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Narey continued, "Phoebe, I wish we could go back to Dec. 10 and 11, when you bravely apologized to me. We had respectful words to each other and though I wasn't happy, I was kind to you. It was my hurt, anger, and jealously that later changed my behavior, after Christmas vacation. That's when I had the chance to be the person I was raised to be. I failed. That failure will always be with me. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the unkind words I said about you. I'm sorry for what I wrote on my Facebook page. Most of all I'm sorry for Jan. 14, in the library and in the hallway, when I laughed when someone was shouting humiliating things about you. I am immensely ashamed of myself."

Before Narey spoke, Jennings, her lawyer, tried to explain to the judge why Narey did not merit a harsher punishment. He detailed her record of successful academics and extensive community service. "Certainly she was never known as a bully," he said of her reputation at school. Jennings also said that Narey has acknowledged her misconduct since her initial interview with the police, six days after Prince's death. "She admitted to everything then that she is admitting to today," he said.

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Jennings said that it was after Christmas vacation in December 2010 that Narey's "worst instincts took over." He put Narey's remark doubting that Prince was truly suicidal in the context of a previous attempt Prince made to take her life in November 2009, after Mulveyhill broke up with her. (Prince had a two-year history of depression and of cutting herself, according to her mother's statement to the police.) "Kayla was talking to her friends, and saying she didn't believe it was genuine," Jennings said, referring to Prince's November suicide attempt. "That what she did was an attempt to get attention, to make Sean feel sorry for her. It was an awful thing to say. She said it to friends, not to Phoebe. And it's not a criminal act."

This dividing line, between cruel and criminal misconduct, has cut through these cases since they began. I've been writing about Phoebe Prince's death and its aftermath for more than a year. I started asking questions about whether the serious felony charges were warranted after I talked to many students at South Hadley High who didn't think they were, and after I learned from previously undisclosed court documents about Phoebe's troubled psychological history, which predated her time at South Hadley High.

This week, based on reports of the plea deals that unfolded today, I called Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to help make sense of the discrepancy between last year's indictment and today's resolution. He put it starkly. "It's an amazing plea bargain that they got," Dershowitz said. "It's unheard of to plea from something that serious to something that minor," and in Narey's case, "to end up with a clean record." The only explanation, he said, was that Scheibel and her office had overcharged Mulveyhill, Narey, and the other teens. "If the prosecutors come down so quickly from a charge like that to a plea like this, clearly they're playing games," Dershowitz said.

Scheibel did not run for re-election last fall, and a new district attorney, David Sullivan, took office in January. So it has been left to him and his deputies to figure out how to end what Scheibel's office started. Jennings said in court that he had discussions with Scheibel's office about Narey's case that suggested she was amenable to a resolution largely similar to the one reached today. Still, in South Hadley, and on the Internet, there will surely be anger and upset about the light penalties. At the same time, others will greet the news with quiet acceptance. In talking to students and other South Hadley residents this week, I mostly heard relief that the cases would soon be over.

For the first time last month, a public official, newly elected school board member Robert Abrams, called for "reconciliation" rather than criminal punishment for the six teens. "These kids and their families have suffered tremendously," he told me when I reached him Tuesday night. "That doesn't justify what they did but I think it's an overreach to have them go to jail." I asked Abrams whether he'd faced criticism for saying so publicly, and he said that other than a rash of anonymous comments on the website Masslive, the answer was no. Today, the judge and even the prosecution agreed with him. Which raises this question: Why were these serious charges ever brought?

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