Defense battles social media blizzard in Ohio rape case
Steubenville High School (CNN Photo)
(CNN) — Images and messages posted to social media that appear to depict the sexual abuse of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, have been taken out of context, the attorney for one of the teenagers charged in the incident said Friday.
“One of the main concerns we have is that this matter has been, by special interest groups all over the world, tried in the court of public opinion,” said Walter Madison, the attorney for defendant Ma’lik Richardson.
Richardson and another 16-year-old member of the town’s highly regarded football team, Trent Mays, are charged with raping the girl at a series of back-to-school parties in August. Mays also is charged with “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.”
Although the teenagers are juveniles, CNN is identifying them because they have been publicly named by a juvenile court judge, by defense attorneys and in media accounts. CNN is not identifying the girl, who also is a juvenile, in accordance with its policy not to release the names of alleged rape victims.
Special prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office allege the teens repeatedly sexually assaulted the girl while she was unconscious.
The case gained national attention after The New York Times reported on it in December and an activist hacker group this week posted a previously unpublicized video of teenagers in the small Ohio River valley town cracking jokes about the case.
The controversy has shaken the city, with some residents accusing outsiders of trying to ruin the reputation of the town’s high school football team, one of the few bright spots in the economically depressed community of 18,000.
“The buzz that keeps coming about is that Steubenville is a bad place, things are being covered up, more people should be arrested and I feel that’s all unjustly so,” said Jerry Barilla, a longtime store owner. “Because I think that to condemn an entire city for something that happened is not right. To condemn an entire school and all the kids that go there for something that took place among a few students is still not right.”
Madison said that buzz has bled into the criminal justice system, making it difficult for his client to get a fair trial.
For instance, he said Friday on CNN’s “Starting Point” that one widely circulated image showing two people, apparently teenagers, holding the girl by her arms and legs has been taken out of context. Madison said his client is one of the teenagers shown in the image.
“The photo is out of context,” he said. “That young lady is not unconscious. That young lady was capable of walking, and her friends are individuals who indicated that information to the police. And they weren’t selected (by prosecutors) for this hearing that we’ve had thus far because that didn’t serve the purpose of the hearing.”
Early hearings in criminal cases often hinge on the prosecution showing it has sufficient evidence for the case to go forward, not to prove a defendant’s innocence.
Madison said more information will come out at trial, which is scheduled for February 13.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is investigating and prosecuting the case, declined Friday on “Starting Point” to say if anyone else could be charged in the case.
But, he said, investigators are continuing to follow leads.
On Thursday, the police chief who initially investigated the case before the Jefferson County prosecutor asked state officials to step in said he’s puzzled why no one intervened in the alleged assault.
“Why didn’t somebody stop it?” Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty said. “You simply don’t do that. … It’s not done.”
The case has attracted the attention of bloggers and even Anonymous, a loosely organized cooperative of activist hackers.
Anonymous has released information about the town and the football team, and is threatening to release more unless everyone comes clean about what happened that August night.
“The town of Steubenville has been good at keeping this quiet and their star football team protected,” an Anonymous member wearing the group’s trademark Guy Fawkes mask says in a video posted to the group’s LocalLeaks website.
The organization, he says, will not allow “a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass because of athletic ability or small-town luck.”
The girl was assaulted the night of Saturday, August 11, and early the next morning, according to authorities.
Involved, according to authorities, were members of the Steubenville High School football team, popular among many in the small, down-on-its-luck town along the banks of the Ohio River. A website dedicated to the team counts down the seconds to its return next season.
Police got involved on August 14, when the girl’s mother reported the alleged assault, according to McCafferty, the police chief. The family provided a zip drive showing a Twitter page, possibly with a photo, the chief told CNN.
A kidnapping charge was dropped by the juvenile court judge at a probable cause hearing last October, said McCafferty and Adam Nemann, who is Mays’ attorney.
“My client asserts his innocence, and he looks forward to his day in court,” Nemann said.
At an October hearing, Madison, the attorney for Richmond, raised questions about the alleged victim’s actions that night, according to CNN affiliate WTOV.
On August 27, the same day authorities charged the two defendants, Jefferson County authorities asked for help from the attorney general’s office in investigating and prosecuting the case. Interviews and witness statements led to the arrests, McCafferty said.
“What we want is to be able to show the citizens of Jefferson County that everything that can be done in this case is being done, and if that means eliciting the help of these people from the attorney general’s office, then that’s what we want to do in this case,” county prosecutor Jane Hanlin told WTOV at the time.
By that time, images and messages from that night had made their way around social media.
Crime blogger Alexandria Goddard, a former Steubenville resident, discovered and preserved many of the messages, at least some of which are now in the hands of authorities. She first spotted the story in the small town’s newspaper and started looking into the situation on a hunch that the highly regarded football team’s members were getting special treatment at the expense of the victim.
“When I first came across the article, I just felt like — because it was involving football players, and there is a culture there that football is very important — that there was probably a little more to this story than what the local media was reporting,” she told CNN on Thursday. “So I started doing my own research.”
One image circulated online and posted on a website maintained by Anonymous showed the girl, dressed in a T-shirt and blue shorts, her body limp, being held hand and foot by two males who appear to be teenagers.
Text messages posted to social networking sites that night seemed to brag about the incident, calling the girl “sloppy,” making references to rape and suggesting even that she had been urinated on, according to Goddard. CNN has not been able to establish whether this is true.
In one 12-minute video, posted by Anonymous on Wednesday, one teenager makes joke after joke about the girl’s condition, saying she must have died because she didn’t move during one assault.
Anonymous and others in the video identified the teen by a name that doesn’t match the two who were charged, but CNN cannot independently confirm his identity.
“Is it really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not,” the teenager says on the video. “She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish.”
Other male voices can be heard off-camera, laughing and talking about the alleged assault. McCafferty said he cannot say who shot that video.
“The subject in that video was interviewed. He wasn’t charged,” the chief told CNN. “The attorney general’s office has all this. It appears to me after I watched the video he was intoxicated.”
The New York Times reported that a cell phone photo from that night shows the girl naked on the floor.
Roughly 11 cell phones and a couple of iPads were seized during the investigation, McCafferty said, adding that he was not involved in retrieving evidence from the electronic devices.
He said “there was evidence on some of the phones.”
A special unit with the attorney general’s office is doing the work, the chief said.
McCafferty said there was a report of a video showing the alleged attack, but authorities don’t have it or know whether it exists.
The attorney for the girl’s family told CNN that the girl is in counseling and is “doing as well as one can expect.”
“She’s trying to go about her life right now, which is difficult because of all the media attention,” family attorney Robert Fitzsimmons said. “It’s as if she’s just flown into this barnstorm. She’ll make it through.”
The case is now in the hands of special prosecutors under DeWine, the Ohio attorney general.
DeWine said that the case is being aggressively prosecuted.
“We want to make sure that there is no stone left unturned,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone in the community really feels that justice has been done and that all the information does in fact come out.”
The parents of one teenager named on Goddard’s blog sued her for defamation and sought to have those who anonymously commented on the blog about the case publicly identified. The family has since dropped the lawsuit, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, Anonymous says it is collecting detailed information about the personal affairs of football boosters and others in the town of 18,000 who the group claims may have helped cover up the attack. It’s also planning a protest “to help those who have been victimized by the football team or other regimes.”
The group has already hacked the website of the local football fansite and says it will release the information if people don’t come forward to help the investigation.
“My heart goes out to the victim,” DeWine said. “The victim continues to be victimized every time something shows up on the Internet. There’s nothing I can do about that, but it is very, very sad.”
CNN’s Ross Levitt and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.