debate

Milkshakes and manslaughter

DQ manager on the hook for teen’s suicide

By Sarah Sidlow

When the Dairy Queen ice cream franchise conglomerate changed its slogan to “DQ: Something Different,” it probably didn’t have involuntary manslaughter in mind. But in Missouri, recent events have the two going hand-in-hand.

It starts with 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner—overweight and speaking with an impediment, he was a prime target for bullies at Glasgow High School and at the local Dairy Queen, where he worked.

DQ Manager Harley Branham also got in on the bullying game. There, the 21-year-old Branham made him lie on his stomach while cleaning the restaurant’s floor by hand, according to employee court testimonials. Another time, she threw a cheeseburger at him because he had made it incorrectly.

On a tragic night in late December, after making a few calls to friends and family, Suttner committed suicide.

Here’s where this all-too-common story makes an interesting legal leapfrog: Missouri law allows for a coroner to seek an official public inquest. And after Suttner’s suicide, Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler decided to ask a six-person jury to decide whether the boy’s death was an accident or a crime. After six hours and 20 testimonies, the results were in: Harley Branham, Suttner’s former manager, should be indicted for felony involuntary manslaughter. If Branham is convicted on the felony charge, she could face up to seven years in prison and a fine of $5,500.

For many (including the manager), this takes things a bit too far. They claim it’s nearly impossible to trace the exact causes of a suicide, and that pinning it on an individual opens up a dangerous legal precedent. For example, what would stop the courts from charging his parents for failing to teach him how to deal with bullying? And following that logic, shouldn’t Glasgow High also take a piece of the blame for allowing the bullying there to go unchecked? (Other parents in the school district reported either removing their children from the school district or having meetings with school administrators to discuss the bullying problem that apparently plagues Glasgow.) What about Dairy Queen itself, for failing to train its employees about harassment?

Yet, for others, this is as a positive and necessary development in escalating the conversation about bullying. They argue that while it is difficult to trace suicide down to a single factor, it’s clear Branham went above and beyond to make Suttner’s life miserable. Plus, because an involuntary manslaughter charge doesn’t account for intent, it doesn’t matter how many times Branham tells a jury, “I didn’t mean to make him kill himself.”

In the past, other states have toyed with similar ways of holding people accountable—think: charging the bar or bartender for letting an intoxicated customer get into a car where they ended up killing other people. Unfortunately, it’s too late to get help for Kenneth Suttner. But maybe there’s a new conversation brewing about how to prevent a repetition of history.

 

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should the DQ manager be convicted of involuntary manslaughter?

 

 

Taking a legal stand

By Patrick Bittner

On the morning of Dec. 21, 2016, as the country was making last minute preparations for the Christmas holiday and the world was bracing itself for a new year, a terrible tragedy was unfolding on the front lawn of a rural Missouri household.  Kenneth Suttner lay dead on his parent’s front lawn from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  After years of relentless bullying and torture at both school and work, Suttner took his life as an escape from the horrors he faced.  And while there are a number of factors that led to this terrible outcome, the state of Missouri has decided the greatest was the influence of Suttner’s former manager at his high school job, flipping burgers at Dairy Queen.

A six-person coroner’s jury convened, reviewed evidence, and came to the conclusion that Harley Branham “was the principal in the cause of death.”  According to the Daily Mail, Branham was responsible for bullying Suttner in many ways, including forcing him to clean the floors of the franchised Dairy Queen by hand while lying on his stomach and allegedly throwing a burger at him when he made it wrong.  And so the court decided to charge Branham with involuntary manslaughter for her part in his death.  While this may seem like an overly zealous gesture on the part of the prosecutor, it is the correct action.

The idea that someone is capable of influencing another person to such an extent that he or she chooses to take his or her own life is a remarkable yet logical idea.  Through her actions as Suttner’s supervisor, Branham destroyed Suttner’s psyche in such a way that it seemed to leave only one way out for him. Branham is responsible in a way that no other individual is, and, as such, should be charged with manslaughter.

This case also paves the way for a landmark set of rulings on bullying in America.  While many school districts, parents, administrators, students, and organizations have made leaps and bounds in the fight against bullying, there is clearly much room for growth. Creating a precedent of consequences for those who participate and condone bullying would define a tangible set of markers that would hopefully deter would-be bullies. If there is a case from which a prosecutor can draw to form an argument, the prosecutor would be much more likely to do so.

Establishing this legal precedent would reduce bullying because participating in such actions would mean legal consequences.

Convicting Branham would also provide an unprecedented level of victim advocacy. Victims of bullying are too often forgotten and, as such, mistakes happen, again and again.  Giving the legal community the tools to fight this epidemic would alleviate the problem to a massive degree.  It is too late for Suttner, but his death may provide a way for future victims and bullies to prevent the same fate for someone else.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.  That fact alone should provide enough power and weight for us as a society to begin truly working to eliminate the blight of bullying from this country.  If we mandate that drunk driving is an offense with a jail sentence consequence and that it is punishable by death to take another human’s life, there should and ought to be a legal framework set to punish individuals who bully others to the extent that they endanger lives.

Someday, we will move as a society away from the torments of a lesser culture.  To an era when all life, no matter the race, religion, size, orientation, gender, or any other feature, is regarded highly enough that we seek to help our fellow humans rather than belittle them.  To a place where we are confident and comfortable enough to value anyone for who they are and not what we think they are.  And to a place where we are big enough to stand up for those of us who cannot do so themselves.  Today is not the day we elevate ourselves, but our actions today could take us one step closer to such an impetus.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Bittner at PatrickBittner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

 

Slipping down a legal slope

By Ron Kozar

Harley Branham may be many things besides a Dairy Queen manager and lowlife ogress, but she did not cause Kenneth Suttner’s death. What caused it was Suttner’s decision to pull a trigger that no one made him pull.

We don’t blame the bullet. We don’t blame the hammer that propelled the bullet. We don’t blame the trigger that tripped the hammer.  But we do blame, or should blame, the person who pulled the trigger.  The buck stops there.  The bullet, the hammer, and the trigger are inanimate bits of manipulable matter.  Kenneth Suttner, by contrast, had a mind and a will.  Only if he were tricked or coerced into pulling the trigger could we keep passing the buck after getting to him.

The moral code that says otherwise is one of the signature idiocies of our age.  It is the code that tells a smoker to blame his smoking on Phillip Morris, the code that calls gambling a disease, the code by which lawyers blame gun manufacturers for shootings.  By that code, Suttner is no more blameworthy than his bullet or his trigger, and just as manipulable.  Sure, he did it, we are told, but Harley Branham made him do it.

She made him do it. That is the theory on which they are prosecuting Branham. But think about that glib locution in another context, when coworkers swore that Branham made Suttner get on his belly to clean the floor.  She neither did nor could make him do any such thing.  She may have told him to.  She may have threatened to fire him if he didn’t.  But Suttner was not Branham’s slave.  He was free to say no.  Were this any other age, he would have told her what parts of her own anatomy to use on the floor, and walked out.  And even if all he had were the prissy self-esteem that today’s pedagogues peddle, he still would not have tolerated Branham.  He would have called a counselor, an EEO office, or a lawyer.  In no time, he’d be the plaintiff in a constructive discharge case.

But he did none of that.  Instead, he did what Branham told him, and therein laid his shame.  He killed himself not because of what she told him to do, but because he meekly did it.  He killed himself not because she was rude and weird, but because he had no self-respect. All of us have dealt with jerks in our lives who fling indignities at us, but the only ones among us who can’t look themselves in the mirror afterward are the ones who, like Suttner, just stand there and take it.  Branham is responsible for telling Suttner to get down on his belly, but she is not responsible for the lack of self-respect that drove Suttner to suicide.

And who was responsible for it?  Sigmund Freud couldn’t tell you that on a good day.  How can a jury of semiliterate burghers in Podunk, Missouri, tell you beyond a reasonable doubt?  Tracing cause and effect through the collisions of triggers, hammers, and bullets is one thing, but tracing it through the thicket of impulses, desires, and sorrows percolating through Suttner’s mind is quite another.  We’re talking proximate cause here, which means a sure and direct cause rather than an attenuated happenstance. We can usefully ask for proof of proximate cause when the thing caused was the flight of a bullet, but not when it was the free choice of a human being.

If we imagine our courts competent to blame one person for another’s suicide, then where do we stop?  If Branham made Suttner kill himself, then what made Branham do what she did?  Why not indict the DQ franchise owner for being too cheap to hire a better manager?  Why not indict Obama or Trump or Congress for the crummy economy that made the franchise owner cut corners?  Branham, mind you, was merely the last in a string of stressors, the straw that broke the camel’s back.  What about the other straws?  Why not indict every kid who taunted Suttner in school?  Why not indict the girl who laughed at him when he asked her for a date?  Why not indict the jackass in the pickup truck who honked at him relentlessly the moment the light turned green and then tailgated him for half a mile?

And why blame Hitler for World War II?  Why not blame Hitler’s mother?

When causes no longer have to be proximate, stupid questions like these cease to be stupid.  Whatever humiliations or taunts he may have been smarting from, Suttner’s own will interposed itself in the causal chain.  His choice is a Berlin Wall through which the buck of legal and moral blame cannot pass.  Branham deserves no end of obloquy, but she does not deserve to be prosecuted for manslaughter.

Ron Kozar is a lawyer in Dayton. Reach him at RonKozar@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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