SAN JOSE, Calif. – Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott hanged herself a week after three classmates photographed themselves sexually assaulting her during a Labor Day house party without adult supervision.
Pott was petrified the boys would circulate the photos online, and she believed deeply she was the subject of widespread gossip.
Audrie's story continues to captivate those concerned with teen bullying, which appears to be on the rise and aided by smartphones and social media but rarely ends in suicide. A wrongful death trial this month in San Jose will determine whether bullying played a role in Audrie's suicide.
Lawyers are scheduled to argue motions Wednesday seeking to limit what evidence the jury will hear. Opening statements and testimony are expected to start next week.
Parry Aftab, a digital privacy lawyer, said Audrie's suicide is expected to be a topic of discussion at an international anti-bullying conference in Ireland in May that she's helping to organize.
"Depending on what the jury decides, the kids will look at this and see there may be consequences," Aftab said.
Audrie's parents are convinced the assault and fear of online disclosure caused Audrie's suicide, and they have pursued a wrongful death lawsuit against the boys, their families and others for three years that will culminate with the three-week trial.
Her parents say they want to hold the teens responsible for their actions and call attention to bullying, social media shaming and teen suicide. One of the three teens told attorneys that in the weeks before Audrie's suicide, the trio swapped racy "selfies" of girls they badgered into taking the photos.
That boy and his family recently apologized to the Potts family and agreed to pay $600,000 to settle their portion of the case.
But the other two teens and their lawyers insist they weren't responsible for Audrie's suicide because the teen had several other problems on her mind.
Lawyers for two of the boys say in court filings that "poor parenting" and several other factors beyond the assault led to Audrie's suicide. Audrie's parents are divorced, and the boys' lawyers argue the girl's relationship with her family played a big role in her suicide. A man claiming to be her biological father contacted Audrie when she was in eighth grade and caused emotional turmoil that remained unresolved when Audrie died, the boys' lawyers argue. They also argue that Audrie was deeply upset that her best friend ended their relationship, accusing Audrie of lying, drinking and being a "bad friend."
The Potts' family lawyer dismisses those claims as a "smear campaign" to distract from the root cause of Audrie's suicide: the photos of her sexual assault and the belief she was the subject of rampant rumors.
"Those rumors and photographic images were the demise of Audrie Pott, causing her suicide," lawyer Bob Allard said in court papers.
The three teens, now high school seniors, and other teens are expected to deliver uncomfortable and emotional testimony about the party where Audrie was sexually assaulted after passing out drunk and other events leading up to her suicide in 2012. They will describe life in an affluent suburb of privilege, divorce and their attachment to smartphones and social media.
On Sept. 2, 2012, Audrie told her parents she was sleeping over at a classmate's house. She didn't tell her parents that the classmate's parents were out of town. After passing out from too much Gatorade with vodka, Audrie was carried upstairs and put to bed in the master bedroom. Audrie awoke with her pants removed and crude remarks written on her body.
Audrie's mother found the teen hanging by her belt in a bathroom of their home on Sept. 10, 2012.
The Associated Press is not naming the teens, who are now 18, because they were 15 at the time of the assault. Two of the teens served 30-day jail sentences, the other a 45-day sentence after pleading guilty to felonies in juvenile court. The family that owned the house where the party occurred agreed to pay $100,000 to settle their portion of the Pott lawsuit. A girl who witnessed the assault and tried to cover up the incident and her family paid $150,000 to settle, and the mother of one of the boys facing trial paid $25,000, court records show.
Audrie's parents led the campaign to pass a California law that allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for juvenile sex offenders who take pictures of their crimes and use them to bully victims.