Two Florida teens have been arrested and charged with felony aggravated stalking after law enforcement concluded that their actions led to the suicide of a 12-year-old classmate. Police allege that the teens’ intense bullying was the cause of the victim’s tragic demise. The actions of the teens stemmed from a dispute they allegedly had with the victim over a boy that they both dated. The bullying and harassing alleged went on for more than a year. Some of the many on line messages sent to the victim included, “Why don’t you go and kill yourself?” and “You should die.” In addition to the numerous on line threats, the victim was allegedly physically attacked by one of the teens. The night before the victim jumped to her death, she sent an on line message to a boy, “I’m jumping. I can’t take it anymore.”
Both teens were booked and charged as juveniles. One of the arrested teens, a 12-year-old, was released to her parents. The 14 year old accused teen was still being detained at a juvenile detention facility.
When hearing of high profile matters like this, I am frequently asked how I would defend the case. My generic response is always, “I would do everything in my power to ensure that they received the best possible outcome under challenging circumstances.” While that response may satisfy some, far too many want to know more. They may come back with, “No, really, what would you do specifically to defend these teens?” I explain that the first thing that I would do would be to thoroughly discover all available facts. One of the things that I did learn was that one of parents is alleging that one of the arrested teens had her computer hacked. Additionally, the parents swore that their teen would never write anything as heinous as what the two are accused of authoring. So, regarding that teen, the answer is simple. I’d secure a forensic expert to examine the teen’s computer in order to provide me with the proof I needed to illustrate how and when her computer was hacked. Very simple. We win. Case closed. Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to be that easy.
Assuming the “Anthony Weiner Defense” didn’t work (He erroneously claimed at first that he didn’t send pictures of his private parts and that his computer was “hacked.”), I would speak extensively with my client(s) and their friends and family in order to throughly understand what they were about. I’d need to know their entire history to understand what caused them to do what is being alleged. I may retain the services of some health care professionals to evaluate my clients. Those types of evaluations have proven to be an invaluable tool in many of my cases. Prosecutors want to ensure, amongst other things, that the community will be safe, that something like this will never happen again. Therefore, having a reputable health care professional opine that this was an isolated incident and that with some therapy, for example, the teen(s) won’t likely repeat this type of behavior, will undoubtedly help reach a favorable resolution.
One other defense that may be argued, depending on what was written by each teen, was that what they wrote was constitutionally protected. WAIT! Before you react, I am simply articulating one possible defense. I’m not suggesting that I believe it and/or that it would work. I am passionately stating that often times, in cases like this, attorneys (me included) will argue that what their client is accused of writing, while offensive and even outrageous, is protected under the Constitution. The First Amendment affords us all great latitude to spew even the most hateful of things, to a point. The problem for these teens, is that some of the things they are alleged to have written, may have crossed over the line. If law enforcement can demonstrate that the teens, “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed, harassed, or cyberstalked” the victim, then they would be guilty of aggravated stalking. Whether what they wrote was protected speech, hinges upon what each one said and did.
The message to all parents and to the community is that law enforcement officers are taking these extreme instances of bullying very seriously. In light of all the recent tragedies caused by cyberbullying, I think that’s refreshing to hear.