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Ohio judge rejects bid to close, move rape trial of 16-year-olds

January 30, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Judge Thomas Lipps listens to arguments in Jefferson County Juvenile Court in Steubenville, Ohio, last week.
Judge Thomas Lipps listens to arguments in Jefferson County Juvenile Court… (Mark Law / Herald Star )

Two high school athletes charged with raping a 16-year-old girl in a case that has gained national attention for the role social media played in exposing the incident will face trial in open court, a judge ruled Wednesday, rejecting requests it be closed to the public and media.

Judge Thomas Lipps also refused defense motions seeking to move the trial out of Steubenville, Ohio, to another county, but he did agree to delay its start one month, until March 13. On that day, Trent Mays and Ma'Lik Richmond, both 16, are to go on trial in juvenile court for the alleged rape of the girl, who witnesses and prosecutors say was too drunk to speak coherently or stand up on her own.

During some of the alleged assault at a high school party last August, the girl was unconscious, according to witnesses who testified at a hearing in October to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to press charges.

Lipps' refusal to close the trial was a blow to the defense and the family of the girl. The girl's family said they wanted to protect her privacy; the boys' attorneys said witnesses would be intimidated if they had to testify in open court. Last week, Walter Madison, who is defending Ma'Lik Richmond, withdrew his motion to close the trial, saying a change of venue would serve the same purposes in reassuring witnesses -- many of them high school students -- called to testify. 

In Ohio, juvenile cases are not automatically closed to the media and public. Asked how his client was managing the barrage of publicity about the case, which was the focus of a recent Dr. Phil show, Madison said he was "doing the best he can."

"He's 16 years old and being thrust onto the world stage, before I guess any juvenile could be prepared," Madison said.

While saying an open trial would help bring transparency to the case, Madison said the judge's refusal to move the trial meant he would be working "very diligently" to promote confidence in his witnesses.

"When it comes to witnesses in a criminal matter, it's not about the quantity, but it's about the quality of what they have to say. We feel those who are reluctant have very important information relevant to the case -- exculpatory evidence," Madison said.

Attorneys representing local and national media had argued during a hearing Friday  the case should be open to prevent the sort of rumor-mongering and misinformation defense lawyers say has cast their clients and the town in a poor light.

The case has divided the Ohio town of 18,000, with some residents saying the accusations and media coverage have unfairly portrayed them as Neanderthals. Others say the failure of witnesses to stop the alleged assault or come forward with pictures or videos of it suggest they were more interested in protecting the town's football culture and its star athletes than seeing justice done.

Some classmates of the accused testified in October they saw the two boys performing sexual acts on the girl as she was either unconscious or too drunk to speak. They said they used their cellphones to capture images of what was happening and showed the images to others but erased the pictures and videos within a day or so. By the time investigators were able to search through more than a dozen cellphones, they say most of the evidence had been erased.

In his decision to keep the trial open, Lipps noted the names of the defendants and details of the case already were in the public realm and the alleged victim's name also had been made public by some media. He noted there have been "community rumors" and "misinformation" circulated -- a problem the judge said could be curbed by keeping the case open. "Responsible media presence will mean more accurate reporting."

Lipps also said the seriousness of the charges meant the public has an interest in the outcome.

In rejecting the change of venue, he said that because the defendants live in Jefferson County and the alleged crime occurred there, the trial should be held there. "The local community is interested in this case that occurred in their midst," the judge said in his written ruling.

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