The Herald Bulletin

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March 17, 2013

Ohio teens guilty of rape, face year-plus in jail

Text messages, social media posts brought case to light

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Two members of the high school football team that is the pride of Steubenville were found guilty Sunday of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl in a case that bitterly divided the Rust Belt city and led to accusations of a cover-up to protect the community’s athletes.

Steubenville High School students Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond were sentenced to at least a year in juvenile jail, capping a case that came to light via a barrage of morning-after text messages, social media posts and online photos and video. Mays was sentenced to an additional year in jail on a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, to be served after his rape sentence is completed.

The two teens broke down in tears after the verdict was read and later apologized to the victim. Both were emotional as they spoke, and Richmond began sobbing so heavily that he bent over and had to be helped back to his seat. Richmond’s father, Nathaniel, also asked that the victim’s family “forgive Malik and Trent for the pain they put you through.”

Mays, 17, and Richmond, 16, were charged with digitally penetrating the West Virginia girl, first in the back seat of a moving car after an alcohol-fueled party on Aug. 11, and then in the basement of a house.

The case roiled the community amid allegations that more students should have been charged — accusations that Ohio’s attorney general pledged to look into — and led to questions from a much wider audience online about the influence of the local football team, a source of a pride in a community of 18,000 that suffered massive job losses with the collapse of the steel industry.

Protesters who sought guilty verdicts stood outside the courthouse Sunday morning, their arms linked, some wearing masks. Later, prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter criticized the efforts by the hacker collective Anonymous to publicize the case, saying the extra attention led to a chilling effect on those willing to testify.

The trial opened last week as a contest between prosecutors determined to show the girl was so drunk she couldn’t have been a willing participant that night, and defense attorneys soliciting testimony from witnesses that would indicate that the girl, though drunk, knew what she was doing.

The teenage girl testified Saturday that she could not recall what happened the night of the attack but remembered waking up naked in a strange house after drinking at a party. The girl said she recalled drinking, leaving the party holding hands with Mays and throwing up later. When she woke up, she said she discovered her phone, earrings, shoes and underwear were missing, she testified.

“It was really scary,” she said. “I honestly did not know what to think because I could not remember anything.”

The girl said she believed she was assaulted when she later read text messages among friends and saw a photo of herself taken that night, along with a video that made fun of her and the alleged attack. She said she suspected she had been drugged because she couldn’t explain being as intoxicated as defense witnesses have said she was.

“They treated her like a toy,” said special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter.

Evidence introduced at the trial included graphic text messages sent by numerous students after the night of the party, including by the accuser, containing provocative descriptions of sex acts and obscene language. Lawyers noted during the trial how texts have seemed to replace talking on the phone for contemporary teens. A computer forensic expert called by the state documented tens of thousands of texts found on 17 phones seized during the investigation.

In sentencing the boys, Judge Thomas Lipps urged everyone who had witnessed what happened in the case, including parents, “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media so prevalent today and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends.”

The girl herself recalled being in a car later with Mays and Richmond and asking them what happened.

“They kept telling me I was a hassle and they took care of me,” she testified. “I thought I could trust him (Mays) until I saw the pictures and video.”

In questioning her account, defense attorneys went after her character and credibility. Two former friends of the girl testified that the accuser she was drinking heavily that night, had a history of doing so and was known to lie.

“The reality is, she drank, she has a reputation for telling lies,” said lawyer Walter Madison, representing Richmond.

The accuser said that she does not remember being photographed as she was carried by Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond, an image that stirred up outrage, first locally, then globally, as it spread online. Others testified the photo was a joke and the girl was conscious when it was taken.

After the trial, the accuser’s mother rebuked the boys for “lack of any moral code.”

“You were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on,” she said.

The photograph led to allegations that three other boys, two of them members of Steubenville High’s celebrated Big Red team, saw something happening that night and didn’t try to stop it but instead recorded it themselves.

None of them were charged, fueling months of online accusations of a cover-up to protect the team, which law enforcement authorities have vehemently denied.

Instead, the teens were granted immunity to testify, and their accounts helped incriminate the defendants. They said the girl was so drunk she didn’t seem to know what was happening to her and confirmed she was assaulted.

After Mays and Richmond were taken into custody Sunday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said he planned to convene a grand jury next month to investigate whether anyone else should be charged in the case.

Noting that 16 people refused to talk to investigators, many of them underage, DeWine said possible crimes to be investigated include failure to report a felony and failure to report child abuse.

“This community desperately needs to have this behind them, but this community also desperately needs to know justice was done and that no stone was left unturned,” he said.

Mays and Richmond were determined to be delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty, Lipps ruled in the juvenile court trial without a jury.

The length of their sentence beyond the minimum one year will be determined by juvenile authorities; they can be held until they’re 21. Lipps said that “as bad as things have been for all of the children involved in this case, they can all change their lives for the better.”

The accuser’s mother echoed that, saying the case “does not define who my daughter is. She will persevere, grow and move on.”

The Associated Press normally doesn’t identify minors charged in juvenile court, but Mays and Richmond have been widely identified in news coverage, and their names have been used in open court. The AP also does not generally identify people who say they were victims of sex crimes.

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