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Web plays incendiary role in Ohio high school rape case

January 07, 2013|By Matt Pearce

The two high school football players accused of rape will get their day in court. The city of Steubenville, Ohio, however, will have to fight some of its battles online, where news of the case began.

It's the story of a horrifying accusation met with small-town side-taking and blown up into a national scandal. Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, both 16, are accused of raping a drunk and unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party on the night of Aug. 11 while other partygoers tweeted and Instagrammed about the attack.

On Aug. 14, the incident was reported to the Stuebenville police, and on Aug. 22, the boys were arrested and charged. As they await trial, their attorneys have asserted their innocence, saying the girl was conscious enough to consent to sex.

The viral nature of the news was not limited to tweets on the night of the incident. The high-profile criminal case spotlighted by social media has put not only the defendants on trial but the culture surrounding them. Some town residents have compared the attention to a public lynching; others have said that without the attention, nothing would have been done.

Steubenville, a city of about 18,000 on the Ohio River, dotes on its Big Red high school sports teams.  

A blogger and a native of Steubenville, Alexandria Goddard, was among the first to flag the attack, saving screen shots from social media at the party and using students' names. Others have wondered why more students at the party weren't charged; the county sheriff said investigators interviewed 59 people and decided that only the two boys were responsible.

But the scandal has entangled more than those two. Hacker collective Anonymous recently posted video of youths who were said to be Steubenville High School students and alumni joking about the rape victim. Someone also hacked and defaced a website dedicated to Steubenville High School athletics, drawing scorn and the promise of litigation.

"The outrageous claims they made while controlling this site were totally false, completely absurd, and totally unfounded," the athletics website now says. "They were clearly both libelous and slanderous, and were not even intended to reveal truth, but rather simply to get media attention and terrorize the Steubenville community. Innocent people have been greatly harmed."  

The statement, signed by someone named Jim Parks, called the hackers "terrorists" and took aim at the New York Times, which published a lengthy expose on the case in December. At one point in the story, when football coach Reno Saccoccia was challenged about why he didn't bench more players who were at the party and might have been involved, he reportedly got in the reporter's face and said, "You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”

Steubenville's city government, Police Department and school district have been embroiled in allegations of nepotism after a local judge and the county prosecutor had to recuse themselves because of their involvement with the popular football team.

The latest development in the case came Saturday as Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty and City Manager Cathy Davison set up a blog dedicated solely to the case  to "disseminate the most accurate information." 

The blog effectively functions as a public relations anti-nepotism machine, repeatedly noting that the police chief, the state's special prosecutors, the case's lead investigator and the city manager did not graduate from Steubenville High School.

The city's blog also took the unusual step of distancing investigators from the video purporting to show students mocking the rape victim, at one point slipping into italics to mark its repugnance.

"Nothing in Ohio’s criminal statutes makes it a crime for someone to ridicule a rape victim on a video or otherwise say horrible things about another person," the blog says. "Further, nothing in the law allows someone who says repugnant things on Twitter, Facebook or other Internet sites to be criminally charged for such statements. Steubenville Police investigators are caring humans who recoil and are repulsed by many of the things they observe during an investigation."

As for the girl, her mother said at an October hearing that she has been ostracized since the attack and cries at night.

Officials said the trial, expected to be held in juvenile court, was scheduled to begin Feb. 13.

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