There is a novel criminal case in Missouri where the supervisor of a Dairy Queen has been charged with manslaughter in the suicide of Kenneth Suttner, 17. Suttner lived a tragic life — tormented by bullies about his weight and his speech impediment. He finally could not take anymore of the abuse and on December 21 took his own life. It is horrific to think of all of the people who made this boy’s life such a living hell. However, the criminal charge against Harley Branham is problematic in seeking to hold her criminally liable in a suicide case.
Suttner faced bullies at Glasgow High School in Glasgow, Mo. However, officials focused more on his supervisor at work. Allison Bennett, a former co-worker, testified that Branham constantly ridiculed Suttner and even made him lie prostrate on his stomach while cleaning the fast food restaurant’s floor by hand. She recounted out Branham threw a cheeseburger at Suttner after he made it improperly.
Branham has insisted that all of this was a joke but the police believed that it was the impetus for his suicide. Suttner went out on a cold, snow covered day and shot himself with a .22 pistol.
Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler invoked his right under Missouri law a to seek an official inquest — allowing a six-person jury to decide whether the boy’s death was an accident or a crime. Roughly 20 witnesses testified at the six-hour inquest. The jury found that Dairy Queen “negligently failed to properly train employees about harassment prevention and resolution” and that the school district was “negligent in failing to prevent bullying.” They also found Branham was the “primary actor” in the boy’s death.
Branham was charged second-degree involuntary manslaughter charge. Even if she committed these despicable attacks, I am still concerned over turning such abuse into a form of manslaughter in a case of suicide. The standard seems dangerously ill-defined for prosecutors in attributing cruel statements or actions to a suicide.
Here of the brief code provision:
565.027. 1. A person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the second degree if he or she acts with criminal negligence to cause the death of any person.
2. The offense of involuntary manslaughter in the second degree is a class E felony.
I share the family’s anger over these allegations. I also believe that there should be administrators and teachers disciplined if the school failed to address bullying. However a criminal charge raises difficult question of when such statements or actions will be elevated to the level of a felony crime.
What do you think?