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Decision on venue for Ohio rape trial expected this week

January 27, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla addresses a crowd at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, earlier this month. A rape case in Steubenville has drawn national attention.
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla addresses a crowd at the Jefferson… (Thomas Ondrey / Plain Dealer )

A judge is expected to rule this week on whether to move the trial of two high school football players charged with raping a drunk and unconscious girl as classmates tweeted comments and shared pictures of the incident.

The case has drawn national attention to Steubenville, Ohio, for the sordidness of the alleged crime and for the manner in which details of it leaked out: via social media, which revealed damning photographs, text messages and other communications that helped fuel the prosecution.

The change-of-venue is one of three decisions facing Judge Thomas Lipps, who heard arguments Friday from attorneys representing the media, the girl’s family, and the accused boys, both 16.

The defense also wants the trial’s Feb. 13 start date delayed. The girl’s family wants the trial closed to the press and public to protect her privacy, although they have not filed a formal motion requesting that. The media are demanding it remain open.

Critics of police and prosecutors say they still have not done enough to track down more possible participants in the alleged rape; law enforcement officials and defenders of the accused say critics have been misled by the social media focus on the case.

On Friday, attorneys representing several media organizations said keeping the trial open would help stop the spread of misinformation.

“If the public can see the truth, it can limit speculation and rumors up to this point,” said attorney Kristen Andrews Wilson, who is representing the Steubenville Herald-Star newspaper. The newspaper also quoted attorney Kevin Shook, who represents other media outlets, as saying that people were sure to discuss the case whether the trial was open or closed, but that an open courtroom would make sure they talked about it accurately.

The case has gained national attention since it broke last August, and it was the subject of the Jan. 17 "Dr. Phil" show. During the show, the mother of a Steubenville High School football player who is friends with the accused blasted critics who say the perpetrators are being protected by their friends and friends' parents.

"Everybody's judging our whole town and nobody knows anything," Jill Watkins yelled as her son, Jeno, who is not accused of wrongdoing, sat beside her. "The whole world's  perceiving things in a whole different light."

During the show, the Steubenville police chief, William McCafferty, defended the police response and noted that arrests were made within 11 days of the incident.

Law enforcement officials say they were hampered by a delay in hearing of the incident, which occurred the night of Aug. 11. The 16-year-old girl and her family did not report it until Aug. 14, after pictures and videos of the incident taken by witnesses had been posted online and shared among local students. They included images of the girl naked, either unconscious or seemingly too drunk to move. The defendants have said any sexual contact was consensual and deny raping the girl.

By the time she went to police, the girl had showered, erasing physical evidence. By the time investigators reached the teenagers who had taken pictures of the incident or communicated with friends about it, many had deleted the evidence from their cellphones.

Some images and words remain, however. One shows the girl, apparently unconscious, being carried by the defendants. One of the boys grasps her arms and the other her ankles.

A video posted online shows a third Steubenville teenager, Mike Nodianos, joking about the rape of someone he refers to repeatedly as a "dead" girl and relating details of the incident. Nodianos, 18, has not been charged in the case. His attorney says he was drunk when he made the comments and was only repeating what others had told him.

In addition, a former Steubenville resident, Alexandria Goddard, who blogs about crime, has posted screenshots of tweets posted in the wake of the incident but later deleted by the holders of the Twitter accounts.

On Thursday, an online petition that organizers say contained 70,000 signatures was presented to Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine calling for prosecutors to continue investigating the case to ensure that all the people involved -- either directly or as onlookers -- are prosecuted. "It's tough to be a victim ... we have the same interests they do, and that is, we seek justice," DeWine said after the petition was delivered.

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