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Teen rape trial also puts Steubenville, Ohio, in the dock

A small-town Ohio rape case goes beyond two teen defendants accused of assaulting a drunk girl, seeming to put an entire community on trial.

March 09, 2013|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Activists demonstrate at the high school in Steubenville, Ohio, in January. Two members of the football team are about to go on trial on charges of raping a drunken girl while others tweeted and texted videos. The case has sharply divided the town, with some demanding more arrests.
Activists demonstrate at the high school in Steubenville, Ohio, in January.… (Michael D. McElwain, Steubenville…)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — The allegations are inarguably revolting:

A falling-down-drunk 16-year-old girl is molested and sexually assaulted by two fellow high school students, once in a car and again at a friend's house, while other teens tweet and text videos, photographs and gleeful descriptions of the incidents.

On Wednesday, two high school boys will stand trial on charges of raping the girl in August, but more is at stake than the futures of the defendants. Steubenville, once famous for steel, Dean Martin and football trophies, is also on trial, and it is fighting to clear itself of accusations that a small-town fixation on high school athletes allowed a hideous crime to occur in front of witnesses who didn't report it.

"The actions of a few have basically condemned our whole city," City Manager Cathy Davison said. "Obviously we do not support sexual assault." Fallout from the case has prompted Steubenville, population 19,000, to hire a Washington-based crisis manager to guide it through the tumult.

Critics of the investigation, though, cannot understand why more people have not been charged with failure to report a crime.

Most prominent among those critics is Alexandria Goddard, a crime blogger who grew up in the area and whose early postings on the incident helped propel the case to national prominence. Goddard, who no longer lives here, saw a news report on the arrests of Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, both 16, on Aug. 22. The arrests were made after the girl, who says she was too intoxicated to recall details, became aware of pictures and chatter online about the incident. She told her parents, who went to police.

Goddard was drawn to learn more after reading that the two suspects were members of Steubenville High School's varsity football team, a huge source of pride for the town.

"Ohio's first dynasty ... keeping Steubenville on the map," the team's website reads in capital letters as a countdown clock ticks away the time until the next game, down to the millisecond.

"So I started snooping around the Internet ... and I was mortified," Goddard said. She retrieved messages that senders had shared via their cellphones and on social media sites.

Some described the girl, who lives in the neighboring town of Weirton, W.Va., and who knew the accused, as a "whore." Some called her "dead girl," a reference to what witnesses said was her demeanor for much of the night, in between vomiting and slurring her words: unmoving and apparently unconscious.

A photograph posted by a friend of the accused shows the defendants carrying the girl by her ankles and wrists. An 18-year-old Steubenville High School graduate appeared in a video on YouTube joking about what he referred to as the "rape" for more than 12 minutes.

Neither he nor any classmates of Mays and Richmond have been charged. Two boys who admitted videotaping the incidents might have faced pandering charges, but police say they lack evidence because the images were erased from the boys' cellphones. The 18-year-old contends that he was on a drunken ramble and was only repeating what others told him.

Prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter said the girl "was treated like a toy that night" by the defendants. "They knew she was drunk," she said.

Defense attorneys said that she never said "no" and that there was no evidence of assault.

Richmond's lawyer, Walter Madison, said the girl was capable of making decisions at various times during the night.

"These are young boys who were stupid," said Mays' attorney, Adam Lee Nemann. "There's probably a lot of indiscretion on her part as well ... but what is consistent is that the evidence does not show there was a sexual assault."

Ohio's attorney general, Michael DeWine, said last week he would announce after the verdict in the trial whethermore people would be charged.

Since the case became big news, Steubenville City Schools Supt. Michael McVey said an extra crisis counselor had been hired and life skills classes were putting heightened emphasis on dating violence.

School employees were required to attend an educational session with Dan Clark, director of professional training at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. In February, Clark held a session for parents to discuss teenage sexual activity, drinking and definitions of rape.

The crisis center expected hundreds of parents. Only 18 people showed up.

"Quite honestly, it's probably the folks that weren't there that needed to hear the message," said Clark, a former law enforcement officer.

Clark blamed the low turnout in part on the session being held on a weeknight. But talks with a focus group of parents before the meeting also revealed a desire to not discuss the case. "People were saying, 'We just want to be done with this,'" Clark said.

McVey clearly is also eager for the case to be over. He said his battle now was keeping the students and staff focused on the classroom, not the courtroom a few blocks away.

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