Fault Lines
18 August 2017

Harley Branham: Scapegoat

February 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Kenneth Suttner had a tough life, and tragically, he chose to end it. As it often does, it started in school:

Lexie Graves, who said Suttner was her best friend, testified she had seen students pick on Suttner in virtually every area of the school building.

“A lot of people, kids, made fun of the way — basically everything about him,” Graves said, including his weight, a speech impediment, the way he walked and how he acted.

Apparently, the same thing happened at work:

At Suttner’s job, [Harley] Branham repeatedly ridiculed him and made him do tasks she didn’t have others do, including cleaning the floor by hand while lying on his stomach, former co-workers said. She once threw a cheeseburger at Suttner because he made it incorrectly, Allison Bennett, a former co-worker, said.

[Branham was Suttner’s manager at the Fayette, Missouri, Dairy Queen.]

Branham was charged with second degree involuntary manslaughter. Unusually, she wasn’t charged by the county prosecutor. Frank Flaspohler, the Howard County coroner,[1] convened a “coroner’s inquest” pursuant to RSMo 58.260:

Every coroner, having been notified of the dead body of any person, supposed to have come to his or her death by violence or casualty, being found within his county, may make out his or her warrant, directed to the sheriff of the county where the dead body is found, requiring him or her forthwith to summon a jury of six good and lawful citizens of the county, to appear before such coroner, at the time and place in his or her warrant expressed, and to inquire how and by whom he or she came to his or her death.

The jury, after taking testimony from Graves, school district and Dairy Queen employees, law enforcement, and Branham herself, found that Branham was responsible for Suttner’s suicide. This triggered an automatic charge under RSMo 58.370:

The coroner, upon an inquisition found before him of the death of any person by the felony of another, shall speedily inform one or more associate circuit judges of the proper county, or some judge or justice of some court of record, and it shall be the duty of such officer forthwith to issue his process for the apprehension and securing for trial of such person.

Branham should have pleaded the Fifth. The results would have been the same but at least the prosecutor wouldn’t have any impeachment material for trial. Perhaps she can be forgiven a bit in that “coroner’s inquests” are a pretty rare proceeding. Flaspohler said that it was only the fifth one he’d convened in 24 years; and in five years of practicing two counties over, I’ve never even heard of a such a thing until now.

Second degree involuntary manslaughter is defined by RSMo 565.027:

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.

Involuntary Manslaughter 2nd is a Class E felony, meaning Branham faces up to four years in prison. “Criminal negligence” is further defined in RSMo 562.016:

A person “acts with criminal negligence” or is criminally negligent when he or she fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist or a result will follow, and such failure constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation.

For what it’s worth, Branham’s testimony was that:

[S]he had [n]ever bullied Suttner or made him do anything meant to demean or embarrass him. Any insults she said to Suttner were done in jest, she said, and he took it in stride.

“There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason” he killed himself, Branham said, “but I don’t understand why it would be that way.”

We previously covered the case of Michelle Carter, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts, after repeatedly urging her boyfriend via phone and text to commit suicide, to the point of telling him to get back in the car while the exhaust was running. That case is different from Branham’s, in that it’s unlikely that Branham would have been “aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that Suttner would commit suicide as a result of her actions, whether they were in jest or in earnest.

But even though she’s the one who got charged, this isn’t about Branham.

The jury also found that Dairy Queen was negligent in training its employees and that the Glasgow School District was negligent in failing to prevent bullying. Shortly after the verdict was read, Wilson read a brief statement from the family to reporters in which the family said they hope the district finally will recognize the pervasive problem of bullying and address it.

The causal link between Branham’s alleged bullying and Suttner’s suicide is thin, to say the least. People get bullied every day, and it doesn’t always (or even often) result in suicide. Suttner may have been going through hell in school and at work, but surely not everyone in Fayette, Missouri, was tormenting him. When he was going through a tough time at school, where were the other students to stand up for him? Where were the teachers? If Branham was harassing him at work, why didn’t the other employees tell her to back off; or at least report her to higher authority? For that matter, why was a 17-year-old who lived at home still working there? No one can ever be certain why another person commits suicide

The prosecution of Branham has less to do with punishing her for her wrongdoings than it does with making the community feel better about a tragedy; yet another attempt to do something to prevent a tragedy that’s already happened.

“[The family] really feel that was Kenny’s voice today, and they feel like it’s justice for Kenny,” [Special Prosecutor April] Wilson said.

[Flaspohler] said He said he decided to do an inquest because bullying is a public safety problem.“If we don’t take care of bullying, we’re going to have more of these,” he said.

State of Missouri vs. Harley Branham has nothing to do with public safety, or justice. Rather, it’s the embodiment of a far more ancient principle:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22, KJV)

Replace “Aaron” with “prosecutor,” “goat” with “Branham,” and “wilderness” with “Department of Corrections,” and that’s pretty much it. Too bad the people of Howard County couldn’t do something for Kenneth Suttner when it would have done him some good.

[1] A “county coroner” in the smaller counties of Missouri is not a medical professional but an elected official responsible for dead bodies; Flaspohler is a lawyer.

5 Comments on this post.

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  • Patrick Maupin
    7 February 2017 at 12:12 am - Reply

    This is America. Everybody should live forever. If somebody doesn’t manage to do that, it’s someone else’s fault, and requires restitution.

  • Rika
    7 February 2017 at 6:39 am - Reply

    I think this is a community problem when things like this happen. As someone who was bullied growing up and abused at home, and still continues to be bullied in the workplace, I can count on not even half of one hand the number of times anybody ever intervened or attempted to intervene. Far more people figuratively if not literally turned their heads. Nobody wants to know or deal with it. That’s the problem in a society that places so much emphasis on family and individuality versus community. It has its up sides, but these situations are part of the down sides. Everybody can sit there and say “well get another job” but I promise you, if you’re the type of person that attracts this behavior everywhere you go, it’s not a viable long-time solution. This is why I’m glad something is being done about it.

    It’s also possible that Harley Branham was abused growing up and that this is how she learned to interact with other people. Or that she has severe anxiety or PTSD or something that makes dealing with the stress of a fast-food restaurant tough, but it sounds to me like she singled out this one high school kid, some part-time worker, for this behavior and worked fine with everybody else (to my knowledge). And Kenneth Suttner travelled 13 miles out of his way to work in another town obviously hoping to avoid the bullying from his hometown. That’s what speaks the loudest and is just devastating. My heart goes out to him.

    • DaveL
      7 February 2017 at 11:37 am - Reply

      This is why I’m glad something is being done about it.

      I can’t say that I’m glad that “something” in this case means singling out an individual least likely to be able to mount a vigorous defense (a 21 year-old Dairy Queen worker) out of an entire community full of people with various degrees of guilt on their consciences.

      • Rika
        8 February 2017 at 6:42 am - Reply

        I do find it strange that they’re going solely after her and not others too, especially the school district and Dairy Queen, who both had responsibilities to make their establishments safe for all people, but this girl had lots of time to think about that before she did any of this. What really goes through someone’s head, that makes them think they can do things like this? Do they really think they can treat people like this forever without consequences? I’m really trying to find some sympathy for her but I just can’t.

        • DaveL
          8 February 2017 at 7:45 am - Reply

          That’s kind of the problem here. She was chosen because she’s unsympathetic, not because ridiculing a subordinate and throwing a cheeseburger at them is understood to amount to manslaughter under an ordinary understanding of the law. Justice demands more than that the state leave sympathetic people alone. It demands that the law be applied evenly and in predictable ways, otherwise unsympathetic groups inevitably find themselves the targets of official oppression under color of law.