Suspicious minds: Social media complicates a Steubenville rape case

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On Saturday, hundreds of people in Steubenville, Ohio, a near neighbor of Western Pennsylvania with a shared blue-collar history of decline, rallied against what is seen by some as an official injustice involving a hideous case of rape. Two members of the local high school football team have been charged with raping a 16-year-old girl after a series of parties where alcohol flowed.

Critics allege that law enforcement authorities have not done a thorough enough investigation in deference to the popularity of the football program at Steubenville High School. It is an easily believed slur -- after all, isn't it one of the lessons of the Penn State scandal that football idolatry can keep mouths shut in the face of evil? -- but it suffers from a lack of reliable information.

According to the official time line, the incident occurred on Aug. 11 and 12 and was reported to the police on Aug. 14. Armed with search warrants, the police took electronic devices on Aug. 16 from people thought to have knowledge of the incident. On Aug. 17, the police sought the help of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

On Aug. 22, two males, Trent Mays and Malik Richmond, both 16, were arrested and put in juvenile detention until Nov. 1, when a visiting judge placed the suspects on home arrest. On Aug. 28, the county prosecuting attorney delegated her authority to special prosecutors from the Ohio Attorney General's Office (because of a conflict of interest).

This is hardly evidence of the authorities sitting on their hands. On the contrary, it's pretty much what a local community should do if the crime outmatches the resources of the local police or the case calls for a more independent look. In addition, the two young men, stars for their "Big Red" high school team, missed the season. None of this would have happened if football were truly king.

The protesters do have at least half a point: The original party was attended by approximately 50 people who apparently did nothing and it seems unlikely that only two teenagers should be the culprits. To the extent that protesters have made the case a national issue and alerted the authorities not to let up, they have done a public service. They remind everyone how ghastly the details of the case truly are.

But social media has driven this case from the beginning and not always helpfully. The group Anonymous posted a video purporting to show an apparently unconscious girl being carried by her ankles and feet -- which traditional media might have balked at given the potential for humiliating the victim.

The boys are scheduled for trial on Feb. 13. In an age when all the rules are being broken by social media, the presumption of innocence can't be one that is jettisoned to a mob mentality, even to a mob wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The rules are there for the benefit of the victim and the accused. Something really bad happened in Steubenville, but let the system play out before condemning it out of hand.

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