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.
Her voice breaking at several points, O'Brien began: "It is nearly impossible to measure the impact of Phoebe's death upon our lives. How do you measure a future loss?" She continued, "As I said goodbye to Phoebe at the crematorium, and held her in her coffin for the last time, my little girl who was so full of life was now so cold. I thought, 'What am I going to do?' There is a dead weight that sits in my chest. It's an unbearable pain and will sit with me until my own death. It is torture."
O'Brien then turned her attention to Mulveyhill. "Phoebe trusted Sean Mulveyhill to take care of her, to guide her through the maze of South Hadley High School. I can only imagine the pain she felt at his unrelenting desire to harass and humiliate her. Sean and I both know I was lied to about the true nature of his relationship with Phoebe. If I'd known, I would have viewed his relationship with my daughter as predatory and I would have forbade her to see him."
O'Brien said that Mulveyhill "set out to humiliate" Prince "and destroy her spirit." She recounted one of Prince's final text messages, in which she wrote to a male friend: "I think Sean condoning this is one of the final nails in my coffin. I can't take much more. It would be easier if he or any one of them, handed me a noose."
"Why could he never have stepped back to see the pain he was causing her?" O'Brien asked. "Where was his empathy?"
O'Brien spoke for a second time during Narey's hearing, which followed Mulveyhill's guilty plea. In addressing Narey's case, O'Brien said, "Phoebe found the courage and compassion to seek out Kayla Narey and apologize to her when she discovered Sean had lied to her. Kayla had the opportunity to be a true leader of the school community and put a stop to Phoebe's torment. Instead, she was too weak of character to match Phoebe's courage."
O'Brien also said that at an earlier point, Narey said to a friend, "If Phoebe is so suicidal, why hasn't she killed herself already?" "Kayla Narey is not capable of compassion even to those she is aware of who are suffering," O'Brien concluded. "Why did Kayla not find the courage and compassion to help Phoebe?"
It was an enormously sad moment, and people blinked back tears all over the small, packed courtroom. And yet O'Brien said yes when Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder asked her if she supported the joint recommendation of the prosecution and defense to resolve the charges against Mulveyhill and Narey with probation. When Judge Kinder asked Gagne to explain his agreement to drop the remaining charges, Gagne said, "The core concern, your honor, of the family and to a large extent the D.A.'s office, was an acknowledgement of wrongdoing."
Gagne said that Mulveyhill provided that by pleading guilty. Narey matched O'Brien's emotion in the apology she read in a quiet, shaking voice.
"Your honor, I would like to extend my heartfelt sorrow and apology to the Prince family, and more importantly, to Phoebe," Narey said. "My parents instilled in me to be kind and considerate and generous to others. For most of my life, I have been able to fulfill that. Unfortunately, during a time in high school, my relationship with my boyfriend became the priority over my core values. My behavior toward Phoebe during this time was unacceptable."
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.
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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