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Trial begins in Steubenville, Ohio, teen rape case

Two witnesses describe the girl becoming increasingly drunk as groups of teens moved from one house to another to continue partying. Two boys are accused of raping her.

March 13, 2013|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Trent Mays, 17, left, Ma'lik Richmond,16, and Richmond's attorney Walter Madison before the trial began Wednesday.
Trent Mays, 17, left, Ma'lik Richmond,16, and Richmond's attorney… (Keith Srakocic, Associated…)

A teenage witness broke down in tears Wednesday as she described watching her friend become drunker and drunker during a party that prosecutors say led to the rape and "degradation" of the girl at the hands of two high school football players.

The testimony came on the first day of the closely watched trial in Steubenville, Ohio, where the defendants, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, began hearing the first of dozens of classmates recount the night of Aug. 11. They are accused of raping the 16-year-old girl twice as other teenagers tweeted and texted about the incident and shared pictures and videos of it online.

Both boys have pleaded not guilty and say the sex was consensual. Prosecutors say it was rape, an allegation repeated in opening statements Wednesday morning by Assistant Atty. Gen. Marianne Hemmeter.

"She wasn't participating. She wasn't moving," said Hemmeter, describing the victim as so intoxicated that she could not speak, could barely walk, and sank to her knees in the middle of the street to vomit as she left one house party to go to another.

"She's sitting in the street, vomiting. Somebody takes her clothes off," Hemmeter told the crowded courtroom in the small Ohio River town. "The degradation continues."

After getting into a car with some other teens, the girl was sexually assaulted in the back seat, prosecutors say.

Then, Hemmeter said, the group drove to a friend's house and headed to the basement. "You will hear that eventually she's lying on her side, naked," Hemmeter said. "The degradation doesn't stop there."

A second rape is alleged to have occurred in the basement.

Richmond's lawyer, Walter Madison, did not make an opening statement. But Mays' lawyer, Brian Duncan, repeated the defense argument that there was no assault.

"Our position has remained unchanged," he said. "That position is that Trent Mays did not rape the young lady in question."

The trial is being held in juvenile court, without a jury, and is open to the public. But most of the juvenile witnesses have the option to not be recorded or identified, as was the case with the first two witnesses.

Both know the girl and described her becoming increasingly drunk as the parties went into the night and early morning hours of Aug. 12, and as groups of teens moved from one house to another to continue partying, according to several media reports from the courtroom.

"She went downhill extremely fast," one testified, after describing the vodka drinks the group was consuming. The witness said that when she next saw her friend, the day after the parties, the girl "started crying and said, 'I don't remember anything,'" the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Another witness said the girl was stumbling and unable to walk unaided shortly before she last saw her the night of Aug. 11. The witness wept as she recalled trying to persuade the intoxicated girl to leave with her. She said the girl refused and pushed her away, opting to remain in the company of the boys who would later be accused of raping her.

Both defendants sat silently throughout the testimony, which will continue Thursday. Each faces confinement in a juvenile institution until the age of 21 if convicted and would be required to register as a sex offender.

As the trial began, a small group of protesters gathered outside of Steubenville's courthouse, demanding that witnesses who saw the alleged rapes be prosecuted for failing to report a crime. The state's attorney general, Mike DeWine, has said he'll decide after the trial ends whether to pursue more prosecutions.

One point everyone agrees on is that if it weren't for the flurry of text messages, tweets, pictures and videos shared among teenagers on social media, the case might never have reached a courtroom.

The alleged victim has said she learned what happened only when she became aware of the online chatter the next day. By the time she and her parents went to police, the girl had showered, and the various partygoers had deleted incriminating posts from their online social media accounts and from their phones.

But blogger Alexandria Goddard, who grew up in the area, became fascinated by the case after seeing a report of the arrests of Mays and Richmond on Aug. 22. She used her online skills to retrieve some of their outdated posts and began reporting on things that she said the local media and police were ignoring.

The case subsequently gained national attention as Goddard's posts sparked controversy between those who say social media users have hijacked justice and those who suspect an attempt to cover up a crime. 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.

Susman reported from New York.

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