Sentencing In Phoebe Prince Death Lacks Justice & Judicial Courage – Part One of Two

Being a Boston, Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer is not an easy job. It carries a high level of professional responsibility. It also requires the very special ability of being able to defend in court, people that you either know or strongly suspect are guilty of the crime they are charged with. And, unfortunately, some of those crimes can be pretty nasty – downright ugly. But the respect I have for our system of laws in the United States, and in Massachusetts, is what makes me able to stand up for my clients, and fight to preserve their legal rights in a court of law. It’s what I do for a living, and I do it very well.

So it was, however, with no small surprise to myself, that I was left noticeably disappointed, to say the very least, at the unconscionably lenient sentences handed down in two separate days last week in a courtroom in Northampton, Massachusetts. In court on the first of those two days were two of the six defendants charged criminally in the January 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, aged 15. All six are to blame morally – and I believe, legally – for the young girls’ desperate suicide – yet of the six, only one has really showed remorse or contrition for what happened here. The six students were charged in the late winter of 2010 by then-Berkshire County District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel with various counts of criminal charges in Prince’s death. Five of those defendants faced varying misdemeanor charges of assault and battery and criminal harassment, and it is beyond dispute and question that the six youths conspired together to assault, bully, harass, batter, and torment Prince. Finally, she could take no more. Despondent and bereft of any hope in herself or in the adults in her school that both she and her mother appealed to for help, the young girl took her own life. She hung herself with the scarf her sister had given her as a Christmas present. That same sister found her, dead. One defendant, Austin Renaud, 18, was charged with a felony offense of Massachusetts statutory rape against Prince – but surprisingly, Prince’s parents asked Scheibel’s successor, Berkshire County District Attorney David Sullivan, to drop those charges. As a Norfolk County Massachusetts rape defense lawyer, I assure you that says more about Prince’s parents, than it does Renaud, who will return to court later to have that judge likely dismissed.

Charging these youths was an act of courage by Elizabeth Scheibel. Many accused her of overcharging what these apologists characterized as “typical schoolyard behavior.” The callousness, frigidity, and arrogance of those kinds of comments is beyond understanding. I would have loved to drag every one of the morons who made such comments into Phoebe Princes’s wake, forced them to stare at her lifeless body and her devastated family, and hear them make those claims again. As a Dedham Massachusetts Assault & Battery lawyer, I believe that the facts and the law provided grounds to charge some of the youths with more serious crimes than the charges that five of the six were ultimately charged with, and had I been the District Attorney overseeing these cases, I would have pressed for more serious charges, no matter how incremental they were. Nonetheless, it took courage on Scheibel’s part to take the stand she did. In the approximately 15 months since Price hanged herself and these youths were charged with the crimes they were, the airwaves and water coolers around the very nation have been saturated with differing opinions on what legally should be done to punish these kids. The opinions ranged from serious jail time, to apologists who felt the youths should not have been charged in the first place.

Last week, five of those cases came to a close, with the sentencing of Kayla Narey, 18 , Sean Mulveyhill, Sharon Velzquez, 17 Ashley Longe, 17, and Flannery Mullins, 18. It should be noted that these sentences, which I’ll discuss in Part Two of this post in a few days, followed joint recommendations which had been submitted to the judge by prosecutors and defense lawyers. It is equally important to note that such Joint Sentencing Recommendations, while often helpful to a judge, by no means bind the judge to follow them. He or she can accept or reject all or part of a recommendation. And that is where the ball was dropped here.

I’ll examine the reasons why that is so, in Part Two of this post, in a few days.