Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
Earlier, by contrast, O'Brien accused Velazquez of "terrifying" Phoebe. "Could she never have stopped, taken a breath, and realized that it's not right to cause another human being such a high level of distress and fear?" O'Brien asked. She also accused Velazquez of saying, after Price's suicide, that she did not care that Prince was dead. The statement left Velazquez sobbing. After the hearing, Velazquez's lawyer denied that Velazquez said anything like this. He had not seen O'Brien's statement before the hearing. The accusation also appears nowhere in the DA's account of Velazquez's misconduct. Her lawyer emphasized that she admitted only to the fact pattern laid out by Gagne at the hearing. "I said from Day One that the charges trying to hold her criminally accountable for the death of Phoebe Prince would be dismissed or that she would be acquitted," he said. "That's what happened today."
Mullins' lawyers issued a statement on behalf of her and her family expressing "their deepest sympathy" to the family of Prince, "whose death we all acknowledge was a tragedy on many different levels." The statement continues: "Today's plea is an acknowledgment that we need to act more civilly and more compassionately toward each other in our daily lives. … [It] is also an acknowledgement by the Northwestern District Attorney's Office that these matters were overcharged."
Elizabeth Scheibel, the district attorney who brought the original felony charges, and who has since left office, disagreed. In a statement, she called the charges "appropriate." The new DA, David Sullivan, also defended the charges at a press conference.
And yet the question remains: If prosecutors thought they could show that the five teens indicted on a felony civil rights charge caused Prince's suicide, why did they let the kids walk with probation, and in every case but one (Sean Mulveyhill's), with the promise of a future clean record? If they didn't think they could prove that, why did they make such a shattering, attention-getting accusation?
The American Bar Association says that prosecutors should only file charges when they know they have sufficient admissible evidence to support a conviction. * After more than a year of covering this case, it's hard for me to square that duty with the way these cases unfolded. "If you bully someone to death, that's murder," explained Joseph Kennedy, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when I called him earlier this week. "But if you bully someone, and then they kill themselves, and that's not something you anticipated, that's not a crime." Though the DA's office will not say so, perhaps this week's resolution means that prosecutors had to accept this assessment.
Correction, May 9, 2011: This sentence originally stated that "prosecutors are ethically bound to bring only charges they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt." The Massachusetts ethical standards state that prosecutors may bring charges that are supported by probable cause. The American Bar Association has a higher bar. (Return to the corrected sentence.)