Kevin Cullen

A case that still waits for some real justice

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / October 10, 2010

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It was just about a year ago that 15-year-old Phoebe Prince stepped on the wrong toes at South Hadley High School, making her a target of bullies and touching off a series of events that ended three months later with her hanging herself with a scarf her little sister gave her for Christmas.

In March, six teenagers were charged in connection with her harassment and death and are awaiting trial. But now more than a few people in Western Massachusetts wonder whether those cases will ever go to trial.

Northwestern District Attorney Betsy Scheibel drew international attention when she filed criminal charges against Phoebe’s schoolmates. She also drew criticism from defense attorneys and others who say the charges are an overzealous stretch.

After 17 years in office, Scheibel is stepping down, and one of her assistant prosecutors, who was involved in the prosecution of the students, lost last month in the Democratic primary to succeed her.

Hampshire Register of Probate David Sullivan won that primary handily, and with no challenger facing him in next month’s final he is the DA in waiting.

Because so many defense attorneys supported Sullivan, and because he has worked as a defense attorney in the past but not as a prosecutor, there is considerable concern, especially among law enforcement officials who worked on the Prince case, that the defense bar will have an undue influence on Sullivan and persuade him to drop the case against the South Hadley students.

It isn’t merely the whispers of defense lawyers and the open unease of police officers feeding the speculation. At the last spate of pretrial hearings a few weeks ago, after Sullivan won the primary, prosecutors were pushing for trials in December, before the change of administration, while defense lawyers asked for delays. The soonest any trials will take place is early next year, after Sullivan takes over and, presumably, after there is some turnover in the DA’s office.

While acknowledging that he has heard of the speculation about the Prince case, Dave Sullivan told me it’s just that, speculation.

“Look,’’ he said, “I haven’t even been elected yet. I don’t take over until January. And I don’t know who will stay or go in the office. People are jumping to conclusions.’’

He said he hasn’t reviewed any of the cases he will inherit, much less made decisions on them.

Sullivan says he understands why what he called “the rumor mill’’ was working overtime on the Phoebe Prince case.

“Defense counsel, of course they supported me,’’ he said. “I was a defense attorney for 16 years. I was president of the [Hampshire County] bar association. But I’m not going to take a dive on any case, for anybody.’’

If the state cops who worked on the case are worried about their work on the Prince case being second-guessed, the incoming DA speaks highly of them.

“We’ve got a very good [State Police] unit,’’ he said. “I think they do great work.’’

Sullivan said his first order of business in transition is to identify who will be on his staff. Everybody on Scheibel’s staff will be invited to reapply.

As for the Prince case specifically, he said that all he knows about it “is what I’ve read in the papers.’’

“That case is high profile,’’ he said. “We’ll put a good prosecutor on it.’’

Sullivan doesn’t take kindly to anybody suggesting that he is anybody but his own man. “I’ll take a look at this case, and I’m going to do justice,’’ he said.

Justice is what Phoebe’s parents, Jeremy Prince and Anne O’Brien, want. While the legal process plays out, they have spent months trying to figure out how to best honor Phoebe’s memory.

This is what they have decided to do. They have established a scholarship in Phoebe’s name for graduates of Van Sickle Middle School in Springfield, where Anne O’Brien was teaching last year before their life turned upside down.

Most of the kids at Van Sickle are poor. Now, some of them will go to college in Phoebe’s memory.

“Following the death of our daughter Phoebe,’’ her parents said in a statement they gave to me, “we learned that both friends and people we did not know wished to contribute money to a scholarship in her honor. We could never have anticipated the outpouring of support. To those who have contributed, we thank you. Your many letters and cards have given us enormous comfort during a time of terrible grief.’’

Cheryl DeSpirt, the principal at Van Sickle, said many of her students have the grades to attend college but not the money.

Springfield School Volunteers will administer the Prince Scholarship fund.

“The scholarships to assist Van Sickle graduates will honor Phoebe’s love of learning and her compassion for those who face hardships,’’ her parents said. “It is also a tribute to the inspirational work of all those at Van Sickle who on a daily basis strive to better the lives of their students. Phoebe would be proud to have her legacy associated with such a school community.’’

Phoebe’s death has focused attention on bullying around the world. Her legacy will help some poor kids in Springfield, the first sign of justice for Phoebe. Poetic justice. But justice all the same.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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