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Monday, January 7, 2013

The Steubenville Gang-Rape Case

     Steubenville, Ohio, a rust-belt town of 19,000 along the Ohio River across from the West Virginia panhandle, has seen better days. The steel mills are long gone, and what's left is unemployment, an ongoing war on drugs, and violent crime. (Even in its heyday, Steubenville was known as a hotbed of Mafia activity.) The only institution that still energizes and inspires the residents of this decaying, crime-ridden community is its high school football program. Like most people in the upper Ohio Valley, the citizens of this town 40 miles west of Pittsburgh are obsessed with high school football.

     During football season on Friday nights, half the town's population gathers in the 10,000-seat stadium to watch Steubenville Big Red roll over its opponents. The team, featuring 19 coaches, has won nine state championships. It's therefore not surprising that kids who play on the high school football team, as small-town heroes, are treated as privileged citizens. Some would even say that these kids can pretty much get away with anything.

     On the night of August 11, 2012, at the home of a "volunteer coach" (I have no idea what that is), fifty teenagers from several area high schools gathered to celebrate the end of summer and the approach of a new football season. With the beer, vodka, rum, and whisky flowing, several of the young partygoers got predictably drunk. (Drugs may also have been involved.) A 16-year-old Weirton, West Virginia girl, an honor student and athlete who attended a private religious school, allegedly fell victim to booze and lost consciousness.

     The next day, several kids who had attended the party, in their Twitter posts, wrote about the gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl who had passed out drunk. According to these social media messages, members of the Steubenville High football team, over a period of several hours with dozens of partygoers looking on, had fondled and raped the girl as she lay nude and unconscious on the floor.

     At one in the morning of August 14, 2012, two full days after the alleged sexual assaults, the girl's parents reported the crime to the Steubenville Police Department. The delay in reporting meant there would be no physical evidence of rape, or blood tests to establish the victim's intoxication. The parents provided the police with a computer flash drive containing Twitter page references to the sexual assault.

     Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty, at an August 22 press conference, announced the gang-rape allegations, and asked witnesses to come forward. The chief's request for additional information produced no results. It appeared that no one wanted to say anything that would reflect poorly on the high school football program. The Jefferson County prosecutor, and the local judge who handled juvenile matters, recused themselves from the case due to ties with the football team. As a result, the investigation was turned over to the state attorney general's office.

     Attorney general's office investigators seized 15 cellphones and 2 iPads that contained material that was quite disturbing. In a 12-minute video posted by a partygoer, a teenager is heard joking about the girl's condition, noting that because she wasn't moving while a boy was raping her, she must be dead. This witness, reflecting a state of mind that is stunning in its puerile sociopathy, says, "Is it really rape because you don't know if she wanted to or not? She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish."

     Investigators were also in possession of a cellphone photograph of two boys carrying a limp girl in a t-shirt and blue shorts by her wrists and ankles. Another cellphone image depicts a nude girl lying on the floor naked. From other social media sources, teenagers are heard bragging about the rape. One kid called the victim "sloppy," and made comments that suggested that some of the boys had urinated on the girl.

     A prosecutor with the state attorney general's office, on August 27, 2012, charged two 16-year-old Steubenville football players with the rape of the girl from Weirton. The police arrested Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. Mays played quarterback, and was a star on the wrestling team. Richmond, besides football, starred in basketball and track. Through their attorneys, both boys claimed they were innocent. (Mays was also charged with disseminating a photograph of a nude minor.) After spending two months in a juvenile detention center, the suspects were placed under house arrest.

     At a probable cause hearing (to establish if the state had enough evidence to take this case to trial) in October 2012, the prosecutor presented three Steubenville high school students who testified against both defendants. According to these witnesses, Mays and Richmond had driven the victim to three other parties that night where she had been raped. Mays had allegedly used his cellphone to videotape himself fondling the girl in the car en route to another party venue. Special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter told the judge that the victim had been "unresponsive, not in a position of consent, and they [the defendants] knew it. Let's be clear," she said, "they knew she was drunk."

     The judge, based upon the social media evidence, and the probable cause testimony of the three partygoers, bound the case over. The trial is scheduled for February 13, 2013.

     In late December 2012, the activist hacking group Anonymous, injected itself into the case by posting the photograph of the rape victim being carried by the wrists and ankles by two boys. The group also posted the video where male partygoers are heard joking about the alleged assault. Walter Madison, Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, told a CNN correspondent that while his client is one of the boys in the photograph, he does not appear in the video. Madison called the photograph showing Richmond as one of the boys carrying the girl "out of context," and said that the girl in question was not unconscious. The defense attorney, in referring to the hacking group, said, "A right to a fair trial for these young men has been hijacked."

     On January 5, 2013, another incriminating video surfaced on the Web featuring the comments of a Steubenville High School student named Michael Nodianos who is heard saying, "She is so raped right now. There won't be any foreplay for a dead girl. It ain't wet now to be honest. Trust me, I'm a doctor."

     Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, Walter Madison told CNN on January 5 that he plans to file a motion for change of venue. Because the local judge has taken himself out of the case, a judge sitting in Cincinnati will rule on the motion.

     Steubenville city manger Cathy Davison, on the day the video featuring Michael Nodianos became public, held a press conference. Davison announced the formation of a municipal website aimed at combating the perception that "...everyone in Steubenville is acting like the individuals involved in the case. That we are a community that is run by football. That is not the case." (I find it interesting that the city manager, instead of condemning the video-recorded behavior of the partygoers, is mainly concerned about the image of the town. This case should be about the alleged crime, and the attitude of the teenagers who witnessed and may have participated in the rape. The hell with the town. The focus should be about what's wrong with these kids? Are we producing a generation of moral zombies?)

     The Steubenville football scandal has divided the town into two camps: Big Red fans intensely loyal to the team who call the case a witch-hunt; and residents fed-up with athletes behaving badly and getting away with it. Regardless of how this case turns out for the two defendants, what has been revealed in the social media about what happened that night is really disturbing. The case also illustrates what I consider to be extreme athletic fandom, a phenomena I've never understood.


     The FBI is looking into allegations that Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla and others investigating the case have been targets of threats. Potential witnesses for the two defendants have been threatened as well. Critics of the way the crime is being handled by the authorities wonder why more high school students haven't been charged with rape. This alleged gang-rape has divided Steubenville, Ohio into warring camps of disgruntled citizens with conflicting ideas on how justice should be administered in this high-profile case.


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