Plea Deals Announced in Phoebe Prince Cases

It looks like good sense is finally going to prevail in the Phoebe Prince cases.

Prince of course was the South Hadley, Massachusetts girl who committed suicide in January of 2010.  Her parents had recently divorced and Phoebe had moved with her mother to the Boston area from their native Ireland while her dad stayed behind.  She was being treated for depression at the time of her suicide.

What’s also true is that she’d gotten crossways with several kids at South Hadley High School, apparently over one or more boys.  That got her targeted by them with epithets like “Irish slut” and others.  She was shunned by the group and made the butt of various jokes and barbs.

Then, tragically, she hanged herself.

In most cases, that would have been treated for what it was – a terrible tragedy, the senseless taking of a beautiful young life.  Parents, relatives, friends and classmates would have mourned.  And then they would have gotten on with their lives.

But not in this case.  No, Phoebe Prince’s death became a cause célèbre, primarily because of the grandstanding of the local District Attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel.  She decided that the bullying Phoebe endured was more than the thoughtless, cruel behavior that countless teenagers engage in.  She thought it was criminal.

So she brought felony and misdemeanor charges against six of the students based largely on laws meant to address hate crimes.  The key word was “Irish,” you understand. Somehow Scheibel wanted people to believe that there was enough of a connection between the kids’ bad behavior and Phoebe’s suicide to warrant the involvement of the criminal courts.

To many, myself included, that seemed like a complete overreaction.  Yes, what the kids did was insensitive and hurtful, but it’s done by millions of children every year and is in fact part of growing up.  Kids coming out of their shells and becoming adult, social beings is often not a pretty sight, but it’s a necessary one.

What those young people did to Phoebe Prince was wrong because it was hurtful.  But it was a moral wrong, not a legal one.  It wasn’t criminal.

Profiles in Cowardice:  Having splashed the matter all over the headlines and posed as the fearless avenger of Phoebe Prince, Scheibel then retired, leaving it for her successor to sort out cases that had no real chance of winning.  (How do you convince a jury that teenage stupidity should send them to prison?)

And that’s just what he’s done.  This article tells us that five of the six defendants have agreed with prosecutors to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor in exchange for having all other charges dropped (Boston Globe, 4/26/11).  Those charges consisted of a variety of felonies and misdemeanors.

If the deal is accepted by the judge, the kids will likely serve short periods of probation and then be free.  In other words, the prosecution caved.  There was never much of a case there and the single misdemeanor pleas are nothing but face-saving for the DA’s office.  They couldn’t walk away with nothing, so they walked away with the next worst (for them) thing.

One defendant, Austin Renaud, remains charged with statutory rape.  That too is an exceptional charge.  Yes, it’s true that Phoebe Prince was under the age of consent at the time the two had sex, if they did.  But so was Renaud.  In those cases, most prosecutors understand that teenagers sometimes have sex with each other and treating the event as a crime is pointless and a waste of public resources.  Statutory rape is intended to punish adults who have sex with children, not children who do.

So Scheibel’s letting the current DA clean up that mess too.  The linked-to article lets us know that Renaud’s lawyer isn’t talking to the DA about any deal.  My guess is that he doesn’t think there’s any way they can convict his client.  After all, what’s the evidence against Renaud that’s not hearsay?

We’ll find out about that in time.  Meanwhile, this is yet another sorry chapter in what sometimes looks like the criminalization of everything.  If you’re a girl and you send your boyfriend a photo of yourself topless, look out; the police may come knocking on your door.  If you’re the boyfriend and you show the photo to someone else, you can count on being charged, likely with a felony.

It’s high time prosecutors started exercising some of the discretion about who to charge, why and when, that used to be routine.  Criminal law is a blunt instrument.  It was never intended to right the type of wrongs committed by the kids of South Hadley High against Phoebe Prince.

That should have been dealt with by parents, school teachers and administrators.  They failed to do so, and they’re the ones who should be disciplined for their failure.  But the District Attorney’s Office should have stayed out of it.

By the recent announcements, they’re doing just that – finally.

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