This is all incredibly sad—heartbreaking. Rebecca’s suicide and its aftermath are reminiscent of the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince and its aftermath. Phoebe died in South Hadley, Mass., in January 2010. A zealous prosecutor, Elizabeth Scheibel, went on a crusade, bringing criminal charges against six teenagers that held them directly responsible for causing her death. Months later, after interviewing many students and adults at Phoebe’s school who said the prosecution’s version of events was misleading and oversimplified, I read through hundreds of pages of court files, thinking I would finally understand the basis for the charges. The opposite happened. I only felt more baffled. And also dismayed, on behalf of the teenagers who because of the criminal charges had become the focus of an unrelenting barrage of attacks and anger, online and in person.
In both of these stories, the point is not that Katelyn and Guadalupe, or the older teenagers accused of bullying Phoebe, weren’t at fault. They were involved in a social conflict—drama—and at times they acted meanly. But holding them responsible for a suicide, by bringing criminal charges, is unwarranted and unjust. Pesta writes that Judd told her he felt a “moral obligation to raise awareness.” That is no kind of reason for charging a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old with a felony. You don’t plaster their photos all over the news and threaten them with a maximum penalty of five years in prison to “raise awareness.” Judd also had the temerity to say: "No one wants to criminalize children” and “our desire was to make sure these children got counseling.” Do I even need to say that these are empty, self-serving pieties?
When I called Judd’s office for comment, I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I guess this is the moment in which even the biggest media hound knows to take a break. I asked the spokeswoman who returned my call about a remaining mystery in the files, this note from the deputy who interviewed Rebecca’s family: “They showed me several screen shots of messages on various text message apps telling Rebecca to ‘kill’ herself’ and to ‘just go die.’ ” The screenshots of the messages themselves are not in the file. When were those messages written, and by whom? What happened to them? The spokesperson said she would email the screenshots to me. She instead sent 15 pages I already had. There were no messages telling Rebecca to kill herself.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If you watch this news broadcast, at the 1:50 mark, you’ll see screen shots of messages that say “can u die plese” and “go die.” Kids do write these awful kinds of things to each other, and it is very much worth talking about how that can possibly be and why they should stop. But there is no proof that Guadalupe or Katelyn wrote those messages..
In defense of Judd’s decision to charge Katelyn and Guadalupe, his spokeswoman told me: “We had probable cause to charge them with aggravated stalking.” The fact that the charges were dropped “doesn’t mean there wasn’t sufficient evidence,” she also said. “That’s a bogus phrase from the media.”
When Judd called Guadalupe a danger to society, he trumpeted one post in her Facebook feed: “yes ik I bullied REBECCA and she killed her self but IDGAF.” That is horrible. (Guadalupe has denied posting it, saying someone else had her login info.) What Judd never said, though, is that the 15 pages of screen shots in the file are filled with sorrow. After Rebecca died, Katelyn wrote to Guadalupe “Why does everything have to fuck up I feel like rebeccas dead cause of me if only i could say sorry.” Guadalupe wrote back, “Iknow I feel so bad omg I feel like its all my fault for saying all that shit to her omfg I didn’t mean for nun diz to happen.” You can read this as a damning admission, I suppose. But you can also read it as heartfelt, if overdue, remorse. And the girls were expressing that before they talked to a single cop. Charging them on this evidence was massive overreach.
Grady Judd’s tendency to overdo it isn’t news to the voters who elected him. At the outset of his career, a deputy was killed in the line of duty, and other officers emptied their guns into the suspect, shooting him 68 times. Asked why, Judd said, “because we ran out of bullets.” In 2007, he boasted of arresting a man for running an Internet pornography site out of his home. An expert called the porn “run-of-the-mill erotica available anywhere on the Internet to anyone who wanted it.” Judd is also the sheriff who took the basketball hoops out of the local jail and stopped supplying inmates with underwear. A federal judge sharply criticized him last year for using pepper spray on detained juveniles. “Polk County is the only county in Florida so far to detain children and teens charged as juveniles under adult jail standards as opposed to those tailored for juvenile detention,” the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out.
I would like to think that the wrongheaded case against Katelyn and Guadalupe will spell the end of trumped-up criminal charges for bullying in the aftermath of teenage suicide. Maybe other sheriffs and prosecutors will see the real lesson to be learned here: This is not the way to help kids. Or to make yourself look good, either.
Update, April 10, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that Sheriff Judd brought charges against Katelyn and Guadalupe in conjunction with the state's attorney.