A Delaware judge says he will rule Thursday on whether three teen-age girls are culpable in a school bathroom fight that left a 16-year-old girl dead. Family Court Judge Robert Coonin made the announcement Tuesday following closing arguments in the non-jury trial.
The girls, all 17, are being tried as juveniles in the death of fellow student Amy Joyner-Francis after a fight that was captured on cellphone video at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington.
An autopsy found that Joyner-Francis, who had a rare and undiagnosed heart condition, died of sudden cardiac death, aggravated by physical and emotional stress from the April 2016 fight.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Her alleged assailant is charged with criminally negligent homicide. All three girls are charged with misdemeanor conspiracy. The Associated Press is not naming them because they are minors.
Defense attorneys argued that Joyner-Francis was a willing participant in a fight between "mutual combatants," and that her death was unforeseeable.
Attorney John Deckers, representing the girl charged with homicide, said she shouldn't be held culpable for Joyner-Francis' death because a reasonable person would expect the consequence of a school fight "is not death, but rather discipline."
Prosecutors contend that Joyner-Francis wasn't looking to fight and was unexpectedly attacked while trying to defuse a tense situation caused by an online group chat.
"Distress, the unexpected nature of the attack, the brute ferocity of it raining upon her, all led to Amy's death," said deputy attorney general Sean Lugg, adding that the alleged assailant showed "a level of barbarism that reasonably would result in the outcome."
The judge must decide whether the conduct of the alleged assailant, and her failure to perceive the risk that Joyner-Francis might die, was a gross deviation from a reasonable person's standard of conduct. He could also consider whether a teenager should be held to a different standard than an adult in determining reasonable conduct.
"This is not reasonable behavior. ... This was in fact a full-fledged beating," Lugg argued.
Defense attorneys said there was a "culture of fighting" at Howard High, and that Joyner-Francis "didn't back down."
Deckers said accepting the state's argument that death is a legally foreseeable consequence of a school fight would break new legal ground. He described Joyner-Francis' death as "a painful tragedy of multiple proportions."
Dr. Richard Ringel, a pediatric cardiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, testified that Joyner-Francis had an extremely rare heart condition that had gone undetected by her doctors, and that her death that day was unforeseeable. According to Ringel, Joyner-Francis suffered from Eisenmenger syndrome, an extremely rare condition for someone her age in which a heart defect combines with severe pulmonary hypertension.
"It was a cruel combination of medical conditions," Deckers told the judge, adding that the chance of a random 16-year-old having pulmonary hypertension with any other heart problem was 2.2 in a million.
Prosecutors say that in an online group chat the day before the attack, Joyner-Francis offered advice to one of her friends about a problem involving a boy, telling her friend to "just be careful." A detective testified that the defendants were later brought into the chat, and that the alleged attacker thought Joyner-Francis — who had warned that someone might betray another person — was talking about her.
A Snapchat posting by one of the defendants that same day shows Joyner-Francis talking to her alleged assailant in the bathroom, purportedly to try to defuse the situation. The posting notes that the girl later charged with homicide was "bouta fight her," followed by several emojis indicating that a person was laughing so hard she was crying.