Steubenville Rape Case Already Tried in Social Media Heads to Court

By: New York Times Email
By: New York Times Email

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — No cellphones, iPads or laptops will be allowed inside Juvenile Court here on Wednesday when two high school football players go on trial on charges of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer. Anyone who wants to post on Twitter or a blog will have to leave the building to do so.

The ban, imposed to help ensure order in the courtroom, may be the first time that social media have been absent from a case that for months has been played out in the electronic world.

The case first came to light through Twitter posts and a photo on Instagram. And the defendants, Trenton Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who have pleaded not guilty, have already been accused, prosecuted, defended and judged guilty or not by their peers and strangers in blog posts, YouTube videos and entries on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Adam Nemann, a defense lawyer for Mr. Mays, said that even members of his own family had asked, “What is there to try?”

Steubenville is nothing if not close-knit: both the local prosecutor and the Juvenile Court judge recused themselves because of personal ties to the case. But the Internet onslaught that followed the disclosure has caused bitter divisions among the 18,000 residents of this industrial city on the banks of the Ohio River — “an old school town,” as one local restaurant owner put it — and introduced them to the modern court of public opinion, where a commentator or a critic might live next door or in New Jersey or Bangladesh.

To some here, the spotlight has brought needed attention to an ugly crime. Mr. Mays, 17, and Mr. Richmond, 16, popular members of Steubenville High School’s Big Red football team, are charged with raping the girl during an evening of partying in and around Steubenville on the night of Aug. 11, while she was too drunk to resist. Witnesses testified at an October hearing that she was raped in a car going to one party and again after arriving.

Those residents argue that adulation for the football team, one of the few jewels left in a city eroded by economic decline, has fostered a culture that allowed such a thing to occur.

“Some want justice for the girl, and others want it to just go away and be swept under the rug,” said Sarah Morris, 23, a college student home for the weekend.

But others here say that while they are shocked by what happened to the young woman, the online furor has tarnished the city and the football team for the actions of a few, spread misinformation and sullied the reputation of other students who have not been charged with any crime.

“It’s making a mockery of the whole town,” said one woman, a customer at Pee Dee’s diner, who wore a Steubenville High School jacket and, like many residents, did not want to be quoted by name for fear of retaliation.

After the suspected rape, a blogger, Alexandria Goddard, posted Twitter messages and a photo taken that night, and named students who were present — including some who testified at the October hearing — saying that they acted criminally by failing to take action.

In January, after an article about the case appeared in The New York Times, a hacker group calling itself Anonymous posted a video of an intoxicated student making fun of the accuser — he called her “the dead girl” and said that the two defendants had raped her — and accused city and school officials of engaging in a cover-up.

Two protests organized by the hacker group were held later in the month. The controversy grew so intense that the city hired a consulting firm in Columbus to help deal with the crisis.

And then there were the threats. Ms. Goddard, a former resident of Steubenville, said that online detractors had maligned her mother and posted the phone numbers and addresses of other family members. One person who commented on her blog said she hoped Ms. Goddard and “her friends” “get AIDS and die a slow death.”

Ms. Goddard was sued for defamation by the parents of one student, but now that the suit is settled she has become a minor celebrity, scheduled for interviews with ABC’s “20/20” and The New Yorker magazine.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “The friends I’ve lost, that has been hurtful. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”

In January, a threatening post on Facebook briefly sent Steubenville’s middle school into lockdown. The personal information of a businessman who has nothing to do with the case was placed online by hackers who apparently confused him with a relative, according to William A. McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief.

And Chief McCafferty himself has been a target: His e-mail was hacked, he said, and a 15-year-old photo showing him wearing only underwear — taken at a party at a resort in Jamaica — was put online with the tag “Thong Song.”

Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general, whose office is prosecuting Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond, said that the state had a strong case and that months of investigation had found no indication of a conspiracy to protect the football team by Steubenville officials.

“We’ve seen no validity to that,” he said. “There’s no evidence that the prosecutor is involved in a cover-up, and there’s no evidence that the police are involved in a cover-up.”

Mr. DeWine did not rule out that possibility that more charges would be brought in the case. But, he said, “This has been really very difficult for the victim and it’s also been difficult for the community, and it’s in its interest for this to be over with.”

Mr. Nemann, one of two lawyers representing Mr. Mays, said they intended to show in the trial that “there was no rape.”

“We’re denying that there was any nonconsensual contact, period,” he said.

Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond, who is represented by another lawyer, Walter Madison, have been under house arrest, allowed to go out only to attend school at the county jail and go to church.

As many as 40 witnesses may testify in the trial, including the accuser, who lives across the river, in Weirton, W.Va. “We just want his over with and out of our lives,” her mother said.

With a verdict, many here hope, the city can go back to discussing the shale drilling companies that are moving in and next fall’s football prospects. The school system has held training on sexual violence.

But Mr. Nemann said that whatever the outcome, he doubted that the tensions would be entirely resolved. “No one wins on either side,” he said. “Everybody loses on these types of cases.”


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