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Carpenters Sue MIT

In Third Wrongful Death Suit, Parents Say Failure to Stop Harassment Led to Suicide

By Keith J. Winstein


The parents of Julia M. Carpenter ’03, who committed suicide in April 2001, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against MIT, several Institute officials, and Charvak P. Karpe ’04.

Carpenter’s parents will seek more than $20 million in damages for her death, which they say resulted from MIT’s failure to stop a string of harassment by Karpe, who lived in the same dormitory, Random Hall, as Carpenter.

Karpe allegedly became obsessed with Carpenter, and, according to the lawsuit filing, made vague references to a plot against her and her boyfriend, camped out and slept on a couch in the lounge outside her room, monitored her instant message conversations, and stole a video of Carpenter having sex with her boyfriend, which he allegedly showed to other students.

“I didn’t mean any harm, and it wasn’t meant to be doing anything to hurt her,” Karpe said in an interview last week. “I feel that many of the things I did back then don’t make sense to me anymore. I look back and see how confused I was at the time, and now, I can see what happened and it made so much more sense and I can see what I did wrong.”

But, Karpe stressed in a later e-mail, “I had absolutely no contact with Julie for 3 months before she died. I hadn’t seen her, heard from her, or tried to communicate with her. I think that’s important.”

“I don’t think [what I did] was reasonable,” he said. “I guess I wasn’t reasoning through my actions.” But “I don’t think I’m responsible for her death,” he said.

The suit is the third in a line of pending wrongful-death lawsuits against MIT that resulted from the 1999 drug-related asphyxiation of Richard A. Guy Jr. ’99 and the 2000 and 2001 Random Hall suicides of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02 and Carpenter. The cases are not expected to go to trial until 2005 or 2006.

JudComm, panel heard allegations

Karpe did not dispute Carpenter’s allegations against him in front of a Random Hall judicial committee to whom Carpenter had complained in February 2001, seeking to have Karpe removed from Random Hall, the suit says.

He also did not dispute them in front of an MIT administrative review panel, overseen by Assistant Dean Carol Orme-Johnson, in April 2001, according to the suit. The contents of that panel’s decision are a subject of dispute, but several people who have read it said that it indicated that Karpe, who had been provisionally removed from Random Hall, would be allowed to return.

“When I came up to MIT to clean out Julie’s room, I found her copy of the ruling,” wrote Zev Arnold, Carpenter’s boyfriend who attended Washington University in St. Louis, in a 2001 e-mail. “The decision listed several books which Charvak had to read concerning how it ‘feels’ to be a victim. It also declared that he had to seek ‘optional’ therapy. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I believe it’s how the ruling phrased it. Provided he did these two things and followed up with a short essay describing how it ‘feels’ to be a victim, it was the body’s decision that he could move back into Random for the Fall semester.”

MIT has contested this characterization of the decision, saying it only allowed for Karpe to reapply to return. “There wasn’t a chance in hell he would have been allowed back into Random Hall,” said Robert M. Randolph, the senior associate dean for students, to The Boston Globe in 2001.

The panel made its decision on Friday, April 20, 2001, the suit says. The following Wednesday, Carpenter “picked up a copy of the panel’s decision left in an unattended room and signed for it,” the suit says. “No one from MIT spoke with Julie concerning the contents of the decision or monitored her reaction to it.”

That Wednesday, she used her laptop to purchase sodium cyanide by mail-order over the Internet, the suit said. By Friday, she had received it. That weekend, she went to a barbeque at the Connecticut home of her friend Kristin Josephson and chatted about returning to visit the Josephsons later that June. Carpenter “seemed happy and did not give us any sign that she had planned on taking her life,” Josephson’s mother, Dr. Lynn Josephson, later told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

When she returned to MIT, Carpenter went to a birthday party and ate chocolate-chip cookies on the Random Hall roof deck, a student said, before returning to her room, where she ingested the cyanide. She was found dead in her room early the next morning, April 30, 2001, by her roommate. There was no note.

Lawsuit charges Vest, MIT, Karpe

The Carpenters’ lawsuit, filed June 4, 2003 in the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, charges that MIT, President Charles M. Vest, Randolph, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, Orme-Johnson, Random Housemaster Nina Davis-Millis, and Karpe were negligent in failing to prevent Carpenter’s suicide. It also charges MIT with breach of contract, by failing to uphold its obligation, paid for by Carpenter’s tuition, to insulate Carpenter from harassers, and it charges Karpe with assault and battery leading to her death.

“Julie’s death was a tragedy that has deeply affected her family, her friends, and many others here at MIT,” President Vest wrote in an MIT statement issued last week. “The allegations in the complaint do not give an accurate or complete picture of the events that preceded Julie’s death, or of the concern and care that was extended to her.”

The Carpenters hope that through their lawsuit, “other students at MIT may avoid her fate,” their lawyer, Jeffrey Beeler, told The Globe last week.

Karpe remains a student at MIT and is seeking legal representation, he said. MIT says it will not provide representation for Karpe. “Mr. Karpe is sued in his individual capacity for assault and battery and other claims,” said Mark Divincenzo, MIT’s risk management counsel. “The practice is not to cover students who are individually named unless they are being named in their capacity as a volunteer or employee,” he said.

The Carpenters did not return requests for comment for this article. Michael Lamson, the family spokesman and Carpenter’s uncle, declined to comment, as did Davis-Millis. Randolph, Benedict, and Orme-Johnson did not return requests for comment.

MIT had warning on suicide

“Please help me prevent another MIT student suicide,” Dr. Josephson wrote Randolph two months before Carpenter died, in February 2001, after Carpenter learned orally that the Random Hall judicial committee planned on allowing Karpe to remain in Random and talked with Dr. Josephson. “Throughout Julie’s telling of the tale, it was clear that she felt the committee had spoken, and that she had no other recourse but to move out of Random to escape, or to escape through death.”

These warnings should have put MIT on notice that Carpenter was a suicide risk, the suit alleges, but instead Randolph referred her to an MIT doctor for treatment for substance abuse. Carpenter had a drinking problem, students say, and one student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described a conversation with Carpenter in March or April 2001 while she was under the influence of ecstasy. She said she had taken the ecstasy to get out of a bad mood, the student said.

Dr. Josephson’s warning and MIT’s knowledge of Carpenter’s substance abuse mean the Carpenters have a strong case against MIT, said Gerald F. Meek, a North Carolina attorney who specializes in suicides and mental health-related practice.

A substance abuse problem is a “major risk factor” for suicide, Meek said, and MIT was arguably irresponsible in having Carpenter pick up the review panel’s decision alone, knowing that its contents would be likely to upset Carpenter, Meek said.

“One very strong argument they could make is that MIT knew that [Karpe] was going to be allowed to reapply before [Carpenter] did, and that they should have contacted her, explained the situation to her, and knowing that she was at risk for suicide, tried to provide some sort of support and counseling to her about the reapplication and determine how she would respond,” Meek said.

“A jury might conclude that a reasonable step for the school to take would be to contact her doctor and inform him of this reapplication and let him know that there might be a danger to her as a result of his reapplication,” he said.

An MIT rejoinder that even those who knew about Carpenter’s cyanide purchase were not alarmed would be unlikely to succeed in court, Meek said.

“Immediately after Julie’s death, your son Zev told Dean Randolph that he had known a few days before she died that she had bought cyanide,” Vest wrote in a June 2001 letter to Kenneth E. Arnold, the father of Zev Arnold, Carpenter’s boyfriend, according to a copy of the correspondence Mr. Arnold provided The Tech in 2001. “When Dean Randolph asked him why he had not warned anyone at MIT that she had done so, Zev said he thought she would not actually use the cyanide to commit suicide.”

“Nobody thinks it’s really going to happen to people that they love,” Meek said. “It’s incredibly common, even when suicide victims tell their loved ones they plan to commit suicide.” But doctors “are trained to do something different and be more alert to a variety of suicide risk factors,” he said. In that light, MIT’s alleged failure to tell Carpenter’s doctor about her harassment complaints and suicidal remarks is serious, Meek said. The doctor, MIT Psychiatrist Adam Silk, is not a defendant in the suit.

“The letter simply set out the facts as we at MIT understood them at the time,” Vest wrote in an e-mail.

Zev Arnold could not be reached for comment. Reached on vacation last week, his father, who in 2001 wrote Vest that he considered Carpenter his daughter-in-law and was instrumental in prodding MIT to have an independent reviewer examine the events surrounding Carpenter’s death, expressed sorrow at the lawsuit.

“I worked for a year very, very hard, I felt, for Julie and for the students I met at MIT, to try and get MIT to look at the situation and see what they can learn from it,” he said. “I know I was successful enough to at least get the investigation formed.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to make all of the students in that dorm relive this,” he said, “and I was trying to help the university do the steps they needed to keep this from happening, and the fact that there’s a lawsuit means I failed in my goal.”

The lawsuit is likely to dredge up memories of Carpenter’s death among students who say they have tried to move on. “We anticipate deposing all persons who have knowledge about the facts surrounding Julie Carpenter’s death, which may include MIT students,” Beeler, the family lawyer, said.

Carpenter suicide last in string

Carpenter’s death was the last in a string of six student suicides from 1998 through 2001 that helped spur MIT’s Mental Health Task Force to announce an $840,000 upgrade in mental health services in late 2001.

Her death also led to an unprecedented outside review, by Kathleen C. Wallace, the associate dean of student development at Duke University, of MIT’s handling of Carpenter’s harassment complaints against Karpe.

Lamson, the Carpenter family spokesman, told The Chronicle last summer that the confidential review “raises just as many questions as it answers” about MIT’s handling of the incident.

In an e-mail, President Vest addressed incoming freshmen and their parents, to whom this issue of The Tech will be distributed. “On the more general question of how incoming freshmen and their parents should think about MIT students staying safe while they are at MIT, the answer is that we have long-standing and constantly improving support services for our students,” he wrote. “In particular, in the mental health area, many Tech articles describe the work of our Mental Health Task Force (which was formed before Julie Carpenter’s death) and the significant expansion of mental health services as recommended by the Task Force.

“But in society at large, as well as the MIT community, no one can force adults -- and freshmen are considered adults by the law -- to seek help and treatment,” Vest wrote. “So the key to supporting students is their willingness to use the resources that MIT makes available to them, and to keep open the communication channels among them, their parents, and those at MIT who can provide services and support when they are needed.”

But MIT’s moves to improve mental health services will not get it off the hook in the three high-profile lawsuits seeking to hold the university accountable for the 1999 drug abuse asphyxiation of Guy, and the 2000 and 2001 suicides of Shin and Carpenter. All three lawsuits were filed after MIT agreed to pay $6 million to forestall a lawsuit from the family of Scott S. Krueger ’01, whose 1997 fraternity drinking death captured national media attention and prompted MIT to bring all freshmen on campus, revamping the 30-year-old residence selection system and building an $80 million dormitory, Simmons Hall, in the process.

In fact, Randolph was so “apparently fixated on the issue of substance and alcohol abuse that gripped the MIT community in the wake of the alcohol-induced death of Scott Krueger,” the Carpenter suit charges, that he neglected to take seriously her harassment complaints.

The damage to MIT’s reputation may have been done, but the Institute’s legal responsibility for the accidental and self-inflicted death of its students is by no means clear. Said an official close to MIT, “At the end of the day, all these cases present issues that are going to have to be resolved by the state’s highest court.” Related stories: