By: Judge Ashley Willcott
KNOXVILLE, TN. (Court TV) – Hayden Berkebile was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the suicide of the younger Grace Anne Sparks. Enough younger that she was either 11 or 13 years old when they first began communicating on a chat website called Omegle. The defendant is 7 years older and says they both had suicidal ideations when they first connected online for comfort and support. The long-distance relationship turned sexual, with Berkebile acting as the dominant partner who directed Sparks in kinky sex acts over video chat, including “suicide games,” coined by the prosecution, involving Russian Roulette.
Like most trials, there are two sides to the story. The prosecution argues Berkebile drove a then 19-year-old Sparks to shoot herself to death for his “viewing pleasure.” The defense argues that both Berkebile and Sparks were two “damaged people” whose mutual predilection for suicide role-play ended in tragedy, but not because the defendant wanted her to die. Evidence presented includes a high volume of text messages between the two being read out loud for the jury, detailing conflicting feelings of support and sadomasochistic practices.
The state believes that criminally negligent homicide applies, arguing that Berkebile’s criminally negligent conduct led to the death of Sparks. Specifically, Berkebile was aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk and ignored that risk, which constituted a gross deviation from the standard of care. That Berkebile coerced Sparks to shoot and kill herself, and should be held criminally responsible for her death. This offense is a Class E Felony, which carries a range of 1 to 6 years in jail.
The Tennessee Department of Health defines suicide as “when a person intentionally ends their own life.” Suicide is a serious public health issue and is the “10th leading cause of death among Americans. For young Tennessee residents aged 10 to 24 years of age, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death.” There are many risk factors for suicide, often including mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use.
There is no doubt Sparks shot herself to death. But should Berkebile be held criminally responsible for Spark’s suicide? The jury sided with the prosecution. Do you think they got it right?
Berkebile is scheduled to be sentenced June 30, 2022.
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.