Trial for Howard High death wraps up

(File/WHYY)

(File/WHYY)

The trial for three girls charged in the death of a Howard High School student wrapped up Tuesday.

On the fifth day of the non-jury trial, Family Court Judge Robert Coonin listened to more than two hours of closing arguments for the case involving last year’s death of 16-year-old Amy Joyner Francis at the Wilmington high school.

Two girls are charged with third-degree conspiracy, a misdemeanor, while a third girl is charged with criminally negligent homicide, a felony. All girls are 17, and charged as juveniles.

Video evidence shows the alleged attacker dragging the victim into a wheelchair accessible bathroom stall and beating her several times. Her two friends allegedly held other students back to allow the fight to occur. The video, which is about 48 seconds, only shows the end of the fight.

An autopsy determined Amy died of sudden cardiac arrest brought on by the physical and emotional stress of the attack, due to a prolonged large Atrial Septal Defect and pulmonary hypertension. Delaware’s Chief Medical Examiner ruled it a homicide.

During Tuesday’s closing arguments prosecutors played the video twice. They argued the three defendants planned the attack on an unsuspecting victim.  

 “They say pictures are worth a thousand words…[Videos] are clearly worth more than a thousand,” prosecutor Sean Lugg said.

“[The defendant] was the initiator, [the defendant] was the aggressor, and [the defendant] was the attacker…. She inflicted and caused Amy’s death—the stress, the unexpected nature of the attack, the brute ferocity laid upon her, led to Amy’s death.”

Defense attorneys argued the girls could not have predicted the outcome of the fight, as no one knew about Amy’s condition, not even her doctors. They also allege Amy played an equal role in the altercation, and that prosecutors have exaggerated the incident.

“[The defendant] had no clue, none, that death could result from a fight with Amy,” attorney John Deckers said. “Even Amy’s pediatricians could not predict [Amy’s condition], let alone a 16-year-old sparked into an emotional reaction over the trivialities of teenage life.”

Over the past week, prosecutors have used video footage and text messages in an attempt to prove the three defendants planned the altercation, and the attack was not mutual. They called upon students and staff to testify, as well as Delaware’s Chief Medical Examiner, who said Amy would still be alive if it weren’t for the attack.

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, have attempted to prove the fight wasn’t a brutal attack, using testimony from an investigator who backtracked on his previous statements that Amy was punched about 20 times to only a few times. They also showed medical records that prove Amy’s heart condition was not caught by doctors, and a cardiologist testified that Amy’s condition was rare, and that her death was sudden and could have occurred any other day. Defense attorneys say the fight was unlike no other at Howard High School, and the girls couldn’t possibly assume the fatal consequences.

Prior to the incident, Amy was texting her friend, advising her to be careful about what she says in public, because some people “switch up,” meaning they’re two-faced. The alleged aggressor was brought into the chat, and thought Amy was referring to her. Amy texted she was not talking about her. Still, the defendant didn’t back down, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors say following this communication, the three defendants travelled to the other side of the school to confront Amy in the bathroom. Prosecutors say Amy tried to defuse the situation. But the defendants recorded themselves saying, “She’s real scared, we’re going to catch her when we see her,” according to video footage shown in court.

The alleged attack took place the following day. The three girls “refusing to let go of the events the day prior,” planned an attack, prosecutors say, but “Amy didn’t realize this was brewing.”

“She was a student, going to school to learn, with her bag on the shoulder, trying desperately to end this thing,” Lugg said Tuesday.

Prosecutors argue Amy wasn’t prepared for a fight, wearing sandals and leaving her hair hanging down, while the main defendant wore sneakers and tied her hair up.

They also say during the day of the event, one of the defendants made a phone call to a friend, asking for Amy’s location.

A defense attorney for the girl who made the phone call argued Tuesday this is not evidence of a planned fight about to occur. She also argued her client was wearing hoop earrings during the fight, and that she doesn’t have an active role in any of the videos.

Attorneys for all three defendants also point to conversations between the three girls the night before in which they discuss getting their nails done and their GPA’s, but not a brewing fight.

They also say the incident was the case of mutual combatants, and that the incident was one of many at Howard High School, where they say there’s a culture of using fists over words to resolve disagreements.

Defense attorneys also argue that the fact Amy’s friends were standing nearby is evidence Amy knew a fight was about to occur.

“Neither girl was about to back down as the crowd cheered them on,” Deckers said.

However, prosecutors argue the alleged attack wasn’t like any other high school fight—a witness testified he could only remember one other that occurred in a bathroom.  Prosecutors also say the defendant understood the dangers of starting a fight in an isolated area with concrete floors.

“[The defendants’] acts were unreasonable under any circumstance,” Lugg said.

If the defendant with the more serious charge is found delinquent, she would likely face community monitoring until she turns 19. If convicted as an adult, she would face up to eight years in prison.

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