Two of three girls charged in the attack on 16-year-old Howard High student Amy Joyner-Francis last April were found guilty Thursday.
Family Court Judge Robert Coonin convicted Trinity Carr of criminally negligent homicide in Joyner-Francis' death and conspiracy.
"The attack on Amy Joyner-Francis had known, potential consequences, risks," Coonin said. "I purposefully use the word 'attack,' because that is what the evidence established; not a fight between two teenagers squaring off to settle some mutual grievance, but rather, an act of violence initiated and carried out by [Carr] over a perceived slight on social media."
Even though Joyner-Francis’s primary cause of death was cardiac arrest precipitated by a rare congenital heart defect known as Eisenmenger Syndrome, Connin decided the criminally negligent legal standard applied to Carr. Coonin says Carr assumed the risk of potential death because of the nature of the assault.
"The attack carried out by Trinity Carr in the close confines of the school bathroom stall posed risk of potential catastrophic physical harm including death by virtue of the tile floor, walls and fixtures," Coonin said. "Had a death resulted from internal bleeding after striking her head on the floor would that result in any way change the risk the assault itself created? Clearly this question must be answered in the negative."
A 48-second cell phone video showing a portion of the attack - along with text messages the day before the attack - played a key role in the trial. Carr’s defense attorney John Deckers says that’s not surprising.
“There’s no doubt any high school fight is an ugly thing to behold," Deckers said.
But he said the combined set of circumstances was rare; he said other cases have touched on one or two of these issues, but never all of the issues all at once.
"There’s never been a case like this in Delaware, and hardly anywhere else ever," Deckers said.
Deckers adds that lost in the tragedy is the impulsive nature of teens and stresses they face in high school, cited by adolescent developmental psychologist Dr. Steinberg during the trial.
The defense’s argument that the incident was just one of many school fights in Howard High over the last few years didn’t hold up to Coonin’s interpretation of overall statewide statistics.
Coonin cited in his decision the 2016 CDC Youth Risk Behavior from 2015 that noted 16% of Delaware high school students involved in fights, and 3% of females injured in reported fights.
He used the statistics to argue that incidents like the one leading to Joyner-Francis’s death lies outside a “reasonable person’s” standard, adding that “even 16-year-olds have standards.”
"The beauty of statistics lies in the eye of every beholder," Coonin said. "Do not the same statistics support the conclusion that 84% of high school students in Delaware do not engage in fights because to do so would be outside of the appropriate standard of conduct for a high school student of similar age? I find that to be the case."
Coonin said that he did give come consideration to Carr's age in assessing behavior in relation to the "reasonable person" civil law standard. He cited the United Supreme Court's decisions to abolish the death penalty for juveniles as well as life in prison without the possibility for probation or parole as evidence that the court system is taking into account juvenile brain development and cognitional changes.
"The defense correctly points out that it is a matter of first impression in Delaware whether the reasonable person standard used in assessing criminal culpability should take into consideration the age and experience of [Carr]," Coonin said.
Connin also cited the apparel of the defendants at the time of the attack in his decision. He found Zion Snow delinquent of third degree conspiracy in the attack, after she posted a photo of her sneakers on social media - what Coonin cited as "parlance for preparing for a fight." He also cited Snow's social media post the day before the fight which read "we gonna get her...she's scared."
Chakiera Wright, who also faced a third-degree conspiracy charge – was not found delinquent. She is not seen pushing or kicking Joyner-Francis in a 48-second video of the incident. Connin said there was no evidence to prove that Wright threatened Joyner-Francis.
Deckers added that while Trinity has a difficult road ahead of her, she has a good support system.
“She has a family who loves her – she is a good child," Deckers said. "She has parents who love her, they are productive members of society, she has grandparents who love her."
State prosecutor Sean Lugg wouldn’t comment on the facts of the case following the decision, but says he hopes it brings closure to those involved – and the community.
“I think in any scenario the consequences of one’s actions must be something that’s considered," Lugg said. "And kids as much as adults should be thinking about that.”
Those consequences won't be determined until next month; sentencing for Carr and Snow is scheduled for May 23rd.
"There's a price to pay," said former Wilmington City Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker, who is close to the Joyner-Francis family. "Until the actual sentencing takes place on May 23rd we don't know what they're [Carr and Snow] going to get as a punishment. Justice is never going to be served because Amy never comes home."
Snow and Wright's attorneys did not comment.