Revelations Stir New Debate Over Phoebe Prince Suicide
"My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe's death ... reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her," wrote Emily Bazelon, senior editor at the Washington Post-owned website Slate.com.
Citing unreleased case documents, Bazelon asserts that Prince took anti-depressants, had a history of self-mutilation and had attempted suicide in November. Prince was "deeply troubled, long before she ever met the six defendants," Bazelon wrote.
Prince, 15, along with her mother and four siblings, immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in fall 2009 and settled in South Hadley, Mass. According to court documents, the teen soon became a target for harassment by her South Hadley High School classmates because of a relationship she had with a football player and another male student.
The alleged bullying, which reportedly lasted three months, reached its peak on Jan. 14, when a student threw a can at her as she walked home from school, police said. Later that day, Prince was found to have hanged herself in the stairwell of her family's apartment.
On March 29, six students were indicted and criminally charged: Austin Renaud, 18; Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, both 17; and 16-year-olds Ashley Long, Flannery Mullin and Sharon Chanon Velazquez.
The Slate article questions the severity of the charges brought against the teens, which could result in lengthy prison sentences. "Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another?" Bazelon wrote.
Bazelon did not respond to a request for comment from AOL News. However, she did appear on NBC's "Today" show on Wednesday to discuss her article.
"It changes how we might think about what happened to her in South Hadley as a result of the bullying and how much the kids that bullied her can be held accountable for her suicide," Bazelon said.
Not long after the interview aired, District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel issued a statement asserting that the charges were both "appropriate" and supported by the police investigation and "available evidence."
"Ms. Bazelon's article suggests that Phoebe's internal struggles alone caused her death and it is unfair to hold these defendants accountable for their behavior," Scheibel said in the statement. "As a matter of law, the existence of a victim's disability does not legally excuse a defendant's criminal actions. Under many statutory schemes, it serves to aggravate the offense, rather than mitigate it."
Scheibel's office did not return calls for comment from AOL News.
Gus Sayer, the superintendent for South Hadley High School, has claimed to have had no knowledge of the alleged bullying until the week before Prince committed suicide. When asked whether allegations about her past should be taken into consideration, he told AOL News, "It's [the district attorney's] decision, and she's already made it. I really don't have an opinion I can express on that."
At least one expert with whom AOL News spoke said that defense attorneys will probably make use of any information about Prince's background.
"They're going to be arguing she was depressed, suicidal, and it wasn't anything their clients did because she was going to do it anyway," says Steve Cron, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Santa Monica, Calif. "How do you prove the causation between their bullying and her committing suicide?"
Another possible angle for the defense could be the antidepressants that Prince was reportedly taking.
"Placing a child on a depressant in a volatile situation is a recipe for disaster," said Los Angeles attorney Michael Baum, whose firm handles pharmaceutical drug product liability, including suicide cases involving antidepressants.
"We've represented dozens of families of children who committed suicide or attempted to commit suicide while taking medicine," Baum said. "[There's] an increased level of suicidal behavior in children ... while taking antidepressants."
How the case plays out in court is yet to be seen, but the Slate article has reinvigorated coverage of the case and has reportedly upset several of Prince's relatives. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Prince's aunt, Eileen Moore, said the article "resurfaced everything. We relive it."
Bazelon has since responded to some of the criticism she's been receiving and has also addressed Scheibel's public statement about her article.
"I, of course, did not write this story to turn the blame back on Phoebe, nor excuse the bullies, especially for their behavior on her last day. But, in this case, there are six other kids whose futures are on the line, and the prosecutor is directly blaming five of them for Phoebe's death," Bazelon wrote on the Slate website.