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‘Blind eye to bullying’ over, DA says

Defends modest sentences in Phoebe Prince suicide case

District Attorney David Sullivan was flanked by members of his office while addressing media. District Attorney David Sullivan was flanked by members of his office while addressing media. (Kevin Gutting/Daily Hampshire Gazette via AP)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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HADLEY — Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan defended yesterday the modest sentences handed to teenagers in the Phoebe Prince bullying case, saying the ordeal of being charged and of publicly admitting wrongdoing were powerful enough punishments.

Standing before reporters after the last of five teenagers charged in connection with Prince’s suicide last January were sentenced to probation and community service, Sullivan said the court had also sent a bigger message. “The era of turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment is over,’’ he said.

Sullivan also announced that statutory rape charges against a sixth teenager, Austin Renaud, had been dropped, at the request of Prince’s family. Renaud had been the only one of the accused not to enter a plea agreement. The charge had been brought because Renaud was 18 at the time of an alleged relationship with Prince.

The comparatively light sentences for the five teenagers who had entered plea agreements had drawn criticism as being too lenient in a case that alleged that the defendants had relentlessly hounded the 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School. Under the deal, the most serious charges against the teenagers were dismissed.

Sullivan, who inherited the high-profile case from the previous district attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel, said the admissions of criminal wrongdoing and acceptance of responsibility by the teenagers fulfilled the chief goals of the Prince family.

“They were never looking for these teenagers to go to jail,’’ Sullivan said.

Asked if the sentences were merely a “slap on the wrist,’’ Sullivan said the teenagers had been punished in other ways.

“They have paid the price in the media and public arena,’’ he said. “They will have this on their backs for their rest of their lives. Worse, they will have it on their conscience.’’

When Scheibel filed charges including stalking and civil rights violations against the teenagers last year, she was met with choruses of praise and, from some corners, sharp criticism for being too harsh. Sullivan rejected such criticism yesterday, but said that, in the end, prosecutors strove to resolve the case with the “mercy, compassion, and understanding’’ the Prince family demonstrated.

“The legacy of Phoebe Prince will be that schools are safer,’’ he said.

The Prince case has drawn international attention and sparked an intense, wide-ranging debate on school bullying.

The dangers of bullying were detailed, in often heartbreaking fashion, in the trio of juvenile court hearings held yesterday in Hadley. Prince’s mother, Anne O’Brien, leaned in close to hear a prosecutor describe the torment her teenage daughter faced at school in the weeks, days, and hours before she killed herself.

Her face etched with pain, the mother heard how Flannery Mullins had ridiculed Prince in front of crowds of other students, shouted vulgarities at her, and made it widely known she wanted to fight her. Mullins, 18, quietly told the judge it was all true. With a withering glare at Mullins, O’Brien then recalled fond memories of her daughter, and mourned a future lost.

“Phoebe had as much right as Flannery Mullins to be in school,’’ she said, her eyes locked on the young defendant across the courtroom. “But school for Phoebe became intolerable.’’

Mullins admitted to sufficient facts on a civil rights misdemeanor charge and disturbing a school assembly. She will be on probation until she turns 19.

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne told the court that in January 2010, Mullins heard rumors that Renaud, her boyfriend at the time, had been romantic with Prince. Gagne said word spread quickly through the school that Mullins was angry and wanted to fight Prince.

“Phoebe Prince became very fearful she would be physically attacked,’’ Gagne said.

Prince would skip class and report to the school nurse to avoid any confrontation, he said. Prince’s mother said Mullins made Prince live in fear.

“Phoebe soldiered on, struggling to get through the day, hoping the next one to be better,’’ she said. “Phoebe tried to be strong, but sometimes all people want to do is break you.’’

Mullins’s lawyer, Alfred Chamberland, said outside the courthouse that the district attorney’s office had brought excessive charges against his client and had demonized her and the other defendants.

He said the plea was “an acknowledgment by the Northwestern district attorney’s office that these matters were overcharged and that the former administration brought felony indictments in cases which did not call for such,’’ he said. “By doing so, the Commonwealth unnecessarily exposed my client and the other juveniles in this case to unfair and harsh national and international media scrutiny.’’

Sharon Velazquez, 17, was put on probation after admitting to a criminal harassment charge. Prosecutors said that in January 2010 Velazquez approached Prince in the hall and loudly called her a disparaging term.

She later ordered Prince to “stay away from Flannery Mullins’s boyfriend,’’ meaning Renaud. Gagne said Velazquez also “verbally berated’’ Prince in Latin class.

Before sentencing, Velazquez admitted in a soft voice that what the prosecutor said was true.

In her statement, O’Brien said Prince became so frightened of Velazquez she would walk between two people in the hall so she would feel protected.

“I can only imagine the terror she instilled in Phoebe,’’ O’Brien said.

She said she hoped Velazquez would reflect upon the seriousness of what she had done, but expressed doubt that Velazquez would.

After O’Brien finished, Velazquez began to cry.

The last teenager to be sentenced, Ashley Longe, admitted she had harassed Prince and was placed on probation. She admitted she had yelled disparaging remarks at Prince and threw an empty can at her as she walked home from school.

But O’Brien said Longe had met with her the day before and praised her courage for wanting to apologize to her in person. “From the start, she has been the only one to acknowledge her actions,’’ she said.

O’Brien asked the court to help Longe become “the person I believe she is capable of being.’’