As their classmates take graduation exams in the high school down the road, two Steubenville, Ohio, teenagers face trial Wednesday on charges they raped an intoxicated girl, an accusation that has enraged victims' advocates nationwide, embarrassed the town, and raised more questions than the case is likely to answer.
Where were the parents that night in August, when dozens of teenagers visited various booze-filled parties until the early hours of the next morning? Why didn’t witnesses, who acknowledged watching a sex act being performed on an apparently unconscious girl, intervene? How could prosecutors not bring charges against those witnesses, and against an 18-year-old Steubenville High School graduate captured on video laughing about what he called the “rape” of a “dead girl”?
Late Tuesday, the defense scored a victory when a judge ordered two reluctant witnesses, who are the alleged victim's close friends, to testify. The witnesses live in West Virginia, a few miles away from Steubenville, and this week a West Virginia judge had said there was no law compelling them to testify. The judge reversed that ruling Tuesday. In addition, the alleged victim, who also lives in West Virginia, was expected to take the stand.
The defense believes that her friends' recollections will help defendants Ma'Lik Richmond and Trent Mays by raising questions about the girl’s intentions when she set out on Aug. 11 to join other teens for a night of parties attended by several of Steubenville High School’s star athletes. They included Richmond and Mays, both 16 at the time, who were on the high school football team, a source of great pride in the struggling, onetime steel town about 30 miles outside Pittsburgh.
But late that night, the partying went awry, according to three teenage boys who testified at a hearing in October to determine whether there was enough evidence to charge Mays and Richmond. The girl became so drunk that she sank to her knees in the street and vomited, could barely speak and needed help walking as she and other teens left one house and headed to another to continue partying.
The boys, who were friends with the accused, testified to two different assaults: one in the back seat of a car as they drove between parties, and the second in the basement of a home as the girl lay naked and unmoving on the floor. Two of the witnesses said they videotaped portions of the assault.
“Being stupid,” one of them, who is 17, said when asked why he pulled out his camera. “Not making the right choices. I don’t really have a reason.”
Another witness, 18, said he “tried to tell Trent to stop” when he saw him assaulting the naked girl, who by the end of the night was apparently unconscious. “I told him, you know, ‘Just wait ‘til she wakes up if you’re going to do any of this stuff. Don’t do anything you’re going to regret,’” he said. He then took pictures of what was happening, “because I knew it was wrong,” he testified, referring to what happened to the girl.
Neither of them has been charged with failing to report a crime or with pandering, because police said they wiped the images from their cellphones before they could be subpoenaed. Nor has the third witness, 17, who did not take pictures but who said he was “stunned” at what he saw.
“I just wanted — I wanted to get out of there and I — I — I didn’t know what to do,” he stammered when asked why he left the house where the second rape is alleged to have occurred.
Defense attorneys for Mays and Richmond say nobody ever heard the girl say “no” and that there is no evidence of rape. Prosecutors counter that the girl could not have said “no” because she was too intoxicated, and that she was too incapacitated to consent.
Women’s groups and victim’s advocates say the witnesses should have been charged with a crime. They also want the 18-year-old filmed joking about the alleged rape to be charged, saying his words indicate he knew exactly what was going on and may have been a participant.
But the man in that video, Michael Nodianos, whose family hired an attorney after the 12-minute clip was posted online, has insisted he was not where either of the alleged rapes occurred and was merely drunkenly repeating what others had told him.
The case has gained national attention since it broke in August. It was the subject of a “Dr. Phil” show in January, in which defenders of the witnesses erupted in heated arguments with others who said the teens' behavior showed that something is rotten in Steubenville.