Three teenagers admitted Thursday that they participated in the bullying of a 15-year-old girl who later committed suicide, with one of their lawyers complaining that they had been unfairly demonized as "mean girls."
Sharon Chanon Velazquez, 17, and Flannery Mullins and Ashley Longe, both 18, were sentenced to less than a year of probation after they admitted to sufficient facts to misdemeanor charges in the bullying of Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School who hanged herself in January 2010.
Prosecutors said Prince, who had recently moved from Ireland to South Hadley, about 100 miles west of Boston, was hounded by five teens after she briefly dated two boys. Her death drew international attention and was among several high-profile teen suicides that prompted new laws aimed at cracking down on bullying in schools.
By admitting to sufficient facts, the three teens acknowledged that prosecutors could win a conviction if the case went to trial. The charges against the girls were continued without a finding and will be dismissed if they successfully complete their probation.
Under a plea deal approved by Prince's family, prosecutors agreed to dismiss more serious charges against them.
Two other teens finalized similar deals with prosecutors in court on Wednesday, and prosecutors announced Thursday they had dropped a statutory rape charge against a sixth defendant, effectively ending the case.
Attorneys for Velazquez and Mullins offered condolences to Prince's family but said they believed the girls had been treated overly harshly by prosecutors and the news media.
Alfred Chamberland, a lawyer for Mullins, said it was not a "relentless" three-month bullying campaign, as retired District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel alleged when the teens were charged last year.
Mullins did not even know who Prince was until she returned to school after winter vacation in January 2010 and heard that Prince had been dating her boyfriend, Chamberland said.
In a statement he read to reporters, Chamberland said prosecutors had "overcharged" the girls and the media had unfairly portrayed them as "mean girls and bullies."
"She never spoke directly with Miss Phoebe Prince," he said.
District Attorney David Sullivan denied that Scheibel's office had brought inflated charges against the teens. He said his office reached the agreements with strong support from the Prince family.
"The defendants in these five cases have accepted responsibility for their actions and admitted that they engaged in criminal conduct toward Phoebe Prince in the weeks, days and hours before she took her life," Sullivan said during a news conference.
He said the "most positive message" to come from the Prince case is that "it has put an international spotlight on bullying and its devastating consequences."
"The era of turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment is over," he said.
In court, Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said that Mullins, after hearing rumors at school that Prince had had "some sort of romantic relationship" with her boyfriend, told at least one classmate that "someone ought to kick her ass," referring to Prince.
Then, during gym class, several students heard her and others making "disparaging and vulgar" comments about Prince, Gagne said.
He said Velazquez, Mullins' friend, then approached Prince in a "loud and threatening manner" and called her disparaging names. Velazquez also was overheard telling Mullins that she was willing to hit Prince or get someone else to do it, Gagne said.
"Word quickly spread around the school that Mullins was angry at Prince and that Mullins planned on fighting her," Gagne said.
Gagne said Prince became fearful, skipped class and went to the school nurse several times.
"She was frightened to go to class and was unable to focus on her studies," Gagne said.
Mullins admitted to sufficient facts to a misdemeanor civil rights violation, which was continued without a finding until she turns 19 in January 2012, and to a charge of disturbing a school assembly, which was continued without a finding for three months.
Prince's mother, Anne O'Brien, delivered an emotional victim impact statement, recalling her daughter's "kind heart" and the compassion she showed to others.
O'Brien said her daughter loved school until when the bullying began.
"Yet, with Flannery Mullins' numerous threats to beat her up, school for Phoebe became intolerable," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said that after her daughter's concerns were brought to Mullins' attention, Mullins boasted that "I'm just gonna mess with her head."
Mullins showed no obvious emotion as Prince's mother spoke and did not offer an apology in court.
Velazquez cried softly as she listened to Prince's mother describe her daughter and the pain she felt from the bullying.
Her lawyer, Colin Keefe, called the plea agreement "an appropriate disposition" and said Velazquez has been subjected to an "endless public reprimand."
"My client has very much endured a very significant punishment for the last year," he said.
The third teen, Longe, cried as a prosecutor described how she yelled disparaging remarks at Prince in the school library just hours before she committed suicide and threw a beverage can at Prince as she walked home from school that day.
Longe admitted to sufficient facts to a charge of criminal harassment. The charge will be dismissed if she successfully completes nearly a year of probation.
Longe and Mullins were ordered to complete 100 hours of community service to help at-risk or underprivileged youths. Velazquez was ordered to complete 50 hours and was asked by Prince's family to voluntarily complete an additional 50 hours.
Prince's mother said Longe expressed "genuine remorse" when the two met Wednesday at Longe's request.
"Although I am not dismissing how she treated Phoebe, she, from the outset, has been the only one to acknowledge her actions," O'Brien said.
After the court hearings, prosecutors announced they had dropped a statutory rape charge against Austin Renaud, the boyfriend of Mullins who also dated Prince.
Renaud, 19, was not charged with bullying Prince as the other teens were.
His lawyer, Terrence Dunphy, said the dismissal of the charge is a relief.
"It's been a very long, tough emotional process, particularly for the Prince family," Dunphy said. "There was nobody who came out of this unscathed."
- misdemeanor charges
- Phoebe Prince
- mean girls.
- South Hadley High School