Echoes of Steubenville

Sexual assault cases show how Internet speculation runs way ahead of evidence

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Last month, two dozen Georgia high school students headed to a post-prom celebration at a rented resort cabin stocked with booze. By morning, according to local police, an 18-year-old woman had been isolated in a room and sexually assaulted by three other students — all prominent athletes at Calhoun High — who left her passed out and injured from the attack. Other students present that night reportedly witnessed the attack but said nothing.

As reports of the night proliferated on social media, local residents created the #standforHER hashtag to voice support for the victim and criticize local police forces for failing to respond quickly enough. Two weeks after the attack, the three men, all 18, had been charged with aggravated sexual battery in the case and barred from their own graduation ceremony.

The allegations in the assault case — a drunken high school party, a pack of male athletes — and a social media outcry have drawn comparisons to Steubenville, Ohio. But in light of the quick arrests, Calhoun is now being billed as the anti-Steubenville, a town where even star athletes are subject to swift justice and community members lend their support to victims, not their attackers.

After condemning Steubenville, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote at Jezebel, “Authorities shouldn’t be applauded for doing their jobs, but given this country’s embarrassing history of prioritizing sports achievement over the right of women to not be raped, when police actually give a damn, I reflexively feel like I should applaud. That’s how low the bar is.”

Police not giving a damn is the narrative that coalesced around the town of Steubenville after a high school girl was sexually assaulted by football players at a house party in August 2012, earning the town the scrutiny of local bloggers, New York Times reporters and Anonymous hackers. As the world watched, the investigation into the assault revealed deep, systematic failures in the town’s school system’s handling of rape, and five school officials were later indicted for tampering with evidence, obstructing justice or failing to report child abuse.

But, as the dust cleared, there was little evidence police mishandled the case. In fact, the Steubenville police response was almost identical to the one that’s being praised in Calhoun.

In Steubenville, the rape occurred Aug. 11; the victim’s parents reported it to police Aug. 14; on Aug. 22, police told the public that 16-year-old football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond had been arrested and charged in connection to the crime.

Police Chief William McCafferty appeared on local television begging more witnesses to come forward, but few did. (Three boys who witnessed the attack were ultimately granted immunity for key testimony.)

According to The New York Times, in the course of the investigation police confiscated 15 cell phones and two iPads from students connected to the party, recovered text messages and photographs shared between dozens of people and interviewed almost 60 students, administrators and parents about the incident. Most of this happened months before the crime exploded in the media.

After Mays and Richmond were convicted last year, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine vowed that the investigation was not over, and more charges could still come.

In the wake of the Calhoun attack, the sheriff of Gilmer County, Georgia, explained why such cases can take a few weeks to materialize into charges.

“In a case, especially involving teenagers or young people, once you make an arrest, the information flow tends to shut down. We wanted to get all we could get before we put people in jail,” Sheriff Stacey Nicholson said. “This has been a very emotional case, certainly for the city of Calhoun and Calhoun High School. We have worked as fast as we could work to bring an end to this case. But we did not work on Calhoun’s time or on the media’s time line.”

Sheriff Nicholson said he put all but one of his detectives on the case, who interviewed over 50 witnesses, culminating in a key interview that resulted in “very valuable information” leading to the arrests.

It’s too early to know whether Calhoun should be congratulated for its investigation. There’s a lot we don’t know. But the Calhoun case shows that a swift and immediate public outcry can be misplaced, as the work needed to build a strong case moves slower than the Internet outrage cycle.

Some of the claims aired by Anonymous in its Steubenville campaign — including the assertion that the victim was drugged during the attack — turned out to be baseless. And Marianne Hemmeter, who prosecuted Mayes and Richmond, said Anonymous’ widespread scrutiny of the town chilled the participation of potential witnesses.

Steubenville showed that intense national attention to a local rape case can help support important reforms, revealing systemic problems that stretch far beyond the perpetrator and the accused. But the case also suggests that observers and activists across the country should be cautious in their finger-pointing and their praise before all the facts are on the table. Seizing upon a narrative too soon can interfere with the cause of justice for both suspects and victims.

Is Calhoun the next Steubenville or the anti-Steubenville? In the end, even Steubenville wasn’t what we thought it was. The full story will take more than a few weeks of rumors and arrests to reveal itself.

Amanda Hess blogs for Slate’s DoubleX forum on sex, science and health.


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