There may well be universal outrage at the South Hadley High bullies who allegedly tormented County Clare native Phoebe Prince into killing herself, but it's nonetheless going to be all uphill for prosecutors when they have their day in court.
District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel's decision to press criminal charges is a bold one to be sure, but she faces a real challenge: There is no law that makes bullying a criminal act. So Scheibel has used a collection of other charges — stalking, civil rights violations, statutory rape — and must convince a jury not only of the guilt of the defendants on those charges, but to somehow make them believe that these acts, in aggregate, led to Prince's death.
The Harvard Law School's Ronald Sullivan described the pros and cons to the Boston Globe.
"Are these the sorts of charges that would have been filed had there not been a death?" the professor wondered. "Is the prosecutor using existing criminal laws in ways that have not been used before in order to vindicate what is, yes, a very horrible tragedy, but a tragedy that may not be recognized by the criminal law?"
On the other hand, Sullivan told the Globe that "when a victim reasonably feels threatened by the actions of others, then it crosses the line from normal teenage behavior to a violation of the criminal law. From what I've seen publicly, it appears that this teasing went to a point where the victim felt threatened, not just upset, not just sad but had a reasonable fear for her safety."
Several legal experts said that the most-serious charges are dicey, and will be hard to prove.
Statutory rape can be consensual sex between two teenagers if one of them is under 16. But in cases in which the sex is not forced, it's unusual for prosecutors to file charges, especially when the pair are close in age.
The charges of civil rights violations, most-often used in connection with incidents of racial or sexual discrimination and over-zealous police misconduct, were filed on the strength of Scheibel's belief that bullies had made going to public school (a civil right) intolerable for Prince.
The stalking charges also hang by a thread, legal pros said. Usually used in domestic violence cases, Scheibel must make this charge work on the basis of allegations that Prince was followed by bullies on her way home.
But nobody is calling it a cakewalk for the defense, either.
Experts consulted by IrishCentral made it abundantly clear that even brushing up against a "blame the victim" approach — perhaps by saying that as a young Irish immigrant new to both South Hadley and the United States, Prince was more fragile and vulnerable than another girl might have been, is dangerous ground, and ripe for impassioned counterattack by the state.
Indeed, the defense has little hope of convincing anyone on the jury that Prince was anything but an innocent victim, yet the connection between bullying and her suicide — which the state must prove — will be a challenge.
The best strategy for the defense, experts agree, is that of a "mob mentality," trying to convince the jury that the defendants behaved in ways they otherwise would not have as individuals. Caught up in peer pressure and the group "decision" to torment Prince in a sexually charged environment, "they" may have acted like a lynch mob.
This kind of defense often works: The jury may buy the idea of the bad "group," but the "group" is not facing any charges — individual teens are, and the jurors must render a decision on every charge against every individual. With the waters muddied by a "mob mentality" strategy, weighing individual charges becomes harder.
Of course, a "ringleader" may emerge from the "mob," and if so, that teenager could be in for a rough time. There's also the chance that one of the defendants will be "flipped" by prosecutors — offered immunity or reduced charges/punishment if he/she testifies against the others. The teens all have their own attorneys, as well as parents who may prefer the "safe" course of testifying for the prosecution.
Given the South Hadley environment, a defendant who flips had best be ready to hop in the moving van with their family as soon as court is dismissed.