Criminal Justice

Slate: Victim Who Committed Suicide in High School Bullying Case Had History of Mental Issues

A basic principle law students are taught in first-year torts class is that defendants who happen to injure a fragile plaintiff can’t point to the victim’s weakness to excuse their own negligence.

And the same principle applies in criminal cases, a prosecutor in a high-profile Massachusetts student-bullying case tells the Boston Globe.

Responding to an article in Slate that says Phoebe Prince had a history of mental health issues before the 15-year-old committed suicide by hanging herself early this year, prosecutor Elizabeth Scheibel says any “internal struggles’’ Prince suffered don’t negate her criminal case. It is being brought against five former fellow students from South Hadley High School who allegedly harassed Prince in the months before her death and violated her civil rights. A sixth defendant is charged with statutory rape.

“As a matter of law, the existence of a victim’s disability does not legally excuse a defendant’s criminal actions,’’ says Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney. “Under many statutory schemes, it serves to aggravate the offense, rather than mitigate it.’’

According to the Slate article, Prince made a prior suicide attempt and had a history of cutting herself before moving from Ireland to the United States. She had also taken antidepressants, but stopped doing so before her death, the online magazine reports.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, Prince’s family and friends, reports the Boston Herald, have decried the Slate article for blaming the victim, characterizing it–in the newspaper’s words–as “a cruel hatchet job aided and abetted by the accused tormenters’ lawyers.”

Additional coverage: “Are Criminal Charges the Right Way to Punish High School Bullies in Suicide Cases?”

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