In the case of Phoebe Prince’s suicide last winter, Massachusetts has bet on that last one, charging six teenagers with felonies ranging from civil rights violations to statutory rape.
Slate’s Emily Bazelon has stirred up waves all over the blogosphere by throwing stones at the case against the South Hadley bullies. The teens will go on trial this fall for, essentially, bullying Phoebe Prince to death.
Bazelon’s new article reveals more details of Phoebe Prince’s background with social conflict and personal turmoil. Prince had been cutting herself for some time, and had attempted suicide in the past. She’d transferred schools to get away from a clique of mean girls who bullied her mercilessly in her native Ireland, before her move to the United States.
And the South Hadley kids facing charges in relation to her death knew this. Some of the kids who will stand trial for their abusive behavior were people Prince had turned to as friends, confidantes and even lovers. Young men who had sex with her, listened to her troubles, and then dumped her and moved on to tease her brutally at school and online.
This is morally reprehensible, but is it illegal?
Bazelon’s article seemed to suggest that the bullies were less culpable because of Prince’s troubled past. To me, it seems that only makes their actions worse.
Letting them off the hook because she was mentally ill is like saying a pack of bullies responsible for a drowning death would somehow be less guilty if the kid they threw in the pool was parapalegic. Sure, most kids won’t drown if you throw them in a pool as a cruel prank. But that doesn’t make it somehow the handicapped child’s fault for not being able to swim.
Clearly, the prosecutor who brought the charges agrees. In a response to Bazelon’s article, she said:
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.
Bazelon asked a law professor, Joseph Kennedy, what he thought about that. His long and thoughtful reply essentially supports the prosecutor’s persepective, saying:
Although voluntary harm-doing usually suffices to break the chain of legal cause, this should not be so when A causes B to commit suicide by creating a situation so cruel and revolting that death is preferred.
Bazelon’s still not sold. She appears to think Prince’s mental health issues caused her suicide, not the bullying.
What do you think? Who’s to blame in this mess?