Last month, on March 14, 11-year old Tysen Benz read text messages saying that his 13-year-old girl friend had committed suicide. In apparent grief, the 11-year-old boy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hanged himself. In reality, the girl had sent the fake news as a joke. Or as a cruel trick. Or because she was 13.
In the Shakespeare play, to fake her death Juliet took a sleeping potion that made her seem dead. (They didn’t have text messaging then.)
Now, if this was really “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet would have killed herself too after learning that her boyfriend was dead. Instead, she is facing criminal charges. Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wiese says that she is responsible for Tysen’s death, so he is charging her with malicious use of telecommunication service, punishable by up to six months in juvenile detention. He is also charging “Juliet” with using a computer to commit a crime, which carries a sentence of up to a year.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
Is this a fair, just and ethical prosecution?
My answer: no, no, and no.
It’s an abuse of power, position and process, just like this case, from 2013, when Florida law enforcement officers arrested a teen and a 12-year old after their cruel Facebook posts prompted a sensitive girl to take her own life. I got it then and I get it now; the idea is to scare kids, let them know that cyber-bullying and cruel hoaxes designed to cause emotional distress are dangerous and wrong, and that there will be consequences. That’s a good intention, now welcome to hell.
As I wrote in the earlier case,
“But cruel and mean comments, on Facebook or anywhere else, are not criminal acts; they are constitutional speech. The legal system is supposed to be responsible and dispassionate, and not impulsively arrest people it doesn’t like or the community doesn’t like, twist the laws to teach kids a lesson, or make up crimes as it sees fit after the imaginary crimes were committed.”
This prosecution, incredibly, is worse. There is no evidence, as far as we know, that the girl was doing anything but playing a cruel joke on someone she cared about. There was no mens rea, no desire to harm. Who would expect a child to kill himself like that? Unless Tysen had credibly told the girl, “If anything happened to you, I’d kill myself,” there is no way she can be found to have committed a crime. Maybe there is a viable civil case, though I doubt it. If we are going to find children legally liable for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, everyone will spend their teen years in court.
I think it is fair to say that the girl involved is devastated by Tysen’s death. Who knows, though…maybe a prosecution and the predictable cyber-hate coming her way will provoke her to commit suicide too. Then we’ll really have Romeo and Juliet 2017, and maybe a TV movie.
If that’s the objective, Matt Wiese is certainly doing his best to make it happen.
Pointer: Arthur in Maine