Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
For the past year, Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey have faced serious felony charges in connection with the suicide of Phoebe Prince, charges that carried heavy prison sentences. Today, however, they both walked out of court with a relatively minor penalty. The teenagers, both 18, each received a year of probation and community service.
In Mulveyhill's case, the probation came in exchange for a guilty plea to a single misdemeanor count of harassment. Narey accepted responsibility for harassing Phoebe, but the judge ruled that her case would be continued for a year, which means that if she completes her probation successfully, she will have no criminal record.
The pleas took place at an emotional hearing. It included the first public statement by Prince's mother about her daughter's death in January 2010, when she was a 15-year-old freshman at South Hadley High School who had recently emigrated from Ireland with her mother and sister. The hearing also offered the first public apology, from Narey, by any of the teens who since last April have faced unusual criminal charges in connection with Prince's death. After a column in the Boston Globe blamed "mean girls" and bullying for Prince's suicide, and some South Hadley residents accused the school district of shirking its responsibility to help Prince and later to investigate the circumstances leading up to her death, the district attorney's office in Western Massachusetts brought an array of charges against six teenagers. The most serious charge was a felony count of civil rights violation with bodily injury, which carries a 10-year maximum sentence. (A sixth teen was not accused of bullying Phoebe but was charged with statutory rape, for allegedly having sex with her when she was 15 and he was 18.) In bringing the charges last April, then District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel accused the five students of carrying out a "three month campaign" of bullying and blamed them for Prince's suicide.
The accounts agreed upon by the prosecution and the defense and recounted in court today were unsparing in their descriptions of the bad behavior of Mulveyhill, Narey, and a third student facing charges, Ashley Longe. But they were far more circumscribed than Scheibel's initial accusations. There was no evidence presented of a months-long campaign.
Prosecutor Steven Gagne said that in the fall of 2009, Prince and Mulveyhill had a brief relationship that later came to the attention of Narey, who was Mulveyhill's girlfriend. Mulveyhill later "got mad at Phoebe because he believed she caused friction between himself and Kayla," Gagne said. Narey found out about the relationship from Phoebe, and though at first she said she respected Phoebe for telling her, she later got angry and posted a note slurring Prince on Facebook. Prince saw the note and was upset by it, Gagne said.
Later, Mulveyhill confronted Prince at school and called her disparaging names in the presence of other students. He also encouraged friends of his to be mean to Phoebe, Gagne said, including Narey and Ashley Longe. (Longe and two other teenagers charged in the case are scheduled for hearings in juvenile court tomorrow. They are also expected to plead guilty to minor charges in exchange for probation.)
Gagne said that at lunch on Jan. 14, the day she died, Phoebe was sitting at a table in the library with friends while Mulveyhill, Narey, and Longe sat at another table. Gagne said Mulveyhill told Longe to punch Prince. Longe didn't do so, but she did call Prince disparaging names across the room, loud enough for other students to hear. Mulveyhill encouraged the name calling "and was taking pleasure in it," Gagne said, while Narey laughed mockingly. When a friend of Prince's asked Mulveyhill how he could be so mean to someone he'd cared about, Mulveyhill said she was no longer "his problem."
Later that afternoon, at school dismissal time, Mulveyhill stood with Longe and Narey in the hallway and "continued to provoke Longe to taunt Phoebe." He and Narey stood by and laughed when she did, Gagne said. Prince left the building and started walking home from school, and Longe drove by her and threw an empty drink can at her, yelling, "Whore." Gagne said that when Longe sent Mulveyhill a text message telling him this, and saying that Prince was crying, he wrote back, "Good job."
These aren't the kinds of facts that normally lead to anything like criminal charges—they reveal cruel but common teenage behavior. But they took on a different cast after Prince's suicide later on the afternoon Longe, Narey, and Mulveyhill taunted Prince. Anne O'Brien, Prince's mother, drove home the terrible sadness of her daughter's death when she spoke in court today. She laid much of the heavy weight of the suicide on Mulveyhill, and expressed anger at Narey as well.