Sexual assault trial in Steubenville attracting wide attention
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The juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, held a hearing Wednesday for a 16-year-old charged in a double homicide.
"I think there were two reporters there," said Fred Abdalla, chief probation officer.
This week that court will host another proceeding, this time a nonjury trial for two teenage boys charged with rape.
But this one will attract so many journalists from across the country -- CNN, Al-Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times -- that the court has set up extra media rooms for them.
Steubenville -- with its history of mafia figures, prostitution, bootlegging, police misconduct and corruption -- has seen its share of media spectacles over the years.
But, Mr. Abdalla said, "nothing like this."
Malik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, both members of the popular Steubenville High School football team, are accused of sexually assaulting a drunken 16-year-old West Virginia girl after a party in August.
Prosecutors say Trent penetrated her with his fingers in the back of a car while she was too drunk to know what was happening. Malik is accused of doing the same in the basement of a friend's house later the same night.
On that level, this is just another sexual assault case like thousands of others across the United States.
But this one has generated enormous interest because of a confluence of factors, starting with the revelation that some of those who attended the Aug. 11 party took cell phone pictures and videos of the alleged assault and then discussed it in cell phone texts and on Facebook and Twitter.
A 12-minute video also surfaced on YouTube featuring another drunken student, Michael Nodianos, joking about the attack, leading to criticism that police should have charged more people if they knew an assault had occurred.
Hacker-activist groups, including Anonymous, have since taken the lead in social media, claiming a cover-up by local officials because of the influence of the Big Red football team.
The swirl of social media posts and rallies by Anonymous members wearing Guy Fawkes masks has also touched on what some call a "culture of rape" they say is still condoned in America.
Even former porn star Traci Lords, a Steubenville native, lent her voice to the outraged, saying her rape in the city at age 10 led her into the world of pornography as a teenager.
The case has bred such a storm of rumors and negative publicity that city officials set up a website, Steubenvillefacts.org, to mitigate the damage.
In addition to a timeline of events and testimonials from politicians about how nice Steubenville is, the site attempts to assure the public that the investigation has not been tarnished by the power of Big Red football.
One entry points out that the police chief, William McCafferty, is not a graduate of Steubenville High, that his child attends another district and that the special prosecutors brought in from the attorney general's office to try the case aren't natives.
No new charges
The site also informs the public that "nothing in Ohio's criminal statutes makes it a crime for someone to ridicule a rape victim on a video or otherwise say horrible things about another person. Further, nothing in the law allows someone who says repugnant things on Twitter, Facebook, or other Internet sites to be criminally charged for such statements."
That entry is aimed largely at disgust over the Nodianos video.
The effort to punish him gained steam recently when the National Organization for Women presented a petition with 85,000 signatures gathered online urging the attorney general to charge Mr. Nodianos with abetting the rape or failing to report a crime.
"He might have been able to intervene and stop it for all we know," Ohio NOW president Jacqueline Hillyer told the attorney general, Mike DeWine, last week in Columbus. "Somebody surely could have."
But the evidence so far indicates that Mr. Nodianos, who has since dropped out of Ohio State University, was not a witness to the sexual acts and learned of them after the fact.
Mr. DeWine said he will hold a news conference in Steubenville after the trial to announce if he will charge anyone else.
His office had previously sent letters to the three key witnesses -- Mark Cole, Anthony Craig and Evan Westlake -- telling them that agents do not have enough evidence to charge them.
Mark and Anthony admitted they took images of the girl being violated, but state crime lab experts were unable to recover them.
That's the only reason the boys weren't charged, prosecutors say. All three testified at a preliminary hearing in October.
"Do you understand how lucky you are?" Assistant Attorney General Marianne Hemmeter asked Anthony at that proceeding.
"Yes ma'am," he said.
Last week Mr. DeWine said his office has not granted immunity to the boys but would not comment further.
"I'm not ruling anything out or anything in," he said.
Separating fact from rumor has been difficult from the outset of the case, but this is what happened Aug. 11, according to testimony:
The celebration started at the Steubenville home of Kamy Bellardine and her brother, Matt, an assistant football coach, with about 50 teens drinking heavily. Among them was the girl, who lives across the river in Weirton and attends a Catholic school.
Although the girl's name has been made public, the Post-Gazette does not identify accusers in sex crimes.
Witnesses said she was extremely drunk. After two hours, Mr. Bellardine told everyone to leave because the party was getting out of hand.
Mark, a football player who came with Trent, left in his Volkswagen Jetta with Trent, Malik, Evan and the girl and headed to the home of Jake Howarth.
Mark and Evan said the girl walked out with Trent and screamed that she wanted to go with them, so they took her. After a short time at Jake's house, they were told to leave and decided to go to Mark's house in nearby Wintersville.
On their way to the car, the girl threw up in the street. Someone had removed her shirt by then, Mark said, so she wouldn't throw up on it. Trent and Malik also held her hair back, Mark said, so she wouldn't vomit on herself.
Evan, the only one who wasn't drunk, drove the Jetta. Trent sat in the back seat with Mark and the girl. During the drive, Mark said, Trent began "fingering" her. Mark took out his cell phone and recorded the act because, he said, he was "being stupid."
When they got to Mark's house, Trent and Malik carried the girl into the basement, where she threw up again.
Mark then went upstairs, let his friend Anthony Craig into the house and showed him the video he'd made in the car.
When they both went downstairs, they said they saw the girl lying naked on the floor with Trent kneeling next to her and trying to get her to perform oral sex. Malik, they said, was lying behind her. Anthony and Evan, who was also in the basement, said they saw Malik penetrating her with his fingers while Trent "smacked" his penis against her hip. She was unresponsive, they said.
"I was stunned by what I saw," Evan said. "I wanted to get out of there."
"I tried to tell Trent to stop it," Anthony said, and "don't do anything you're going to regret."
He said Trent's response was, "Don't worry."
Anthony said he took pictures, explaining that he wanted to be able to show the girl later "because I knew it was wrong."
But he admitted that he never did show her, instead deleting the images and then lying to police that he had not taken photos. Mark said he also deleted the video he took in the car.
The digital penetration described by the witnesses is the basis of the rape charge, but state agents have no physical evidence.
Police had seized more than 15 cell phones, yet were able to find only two pictures, both on Trent's phone. They show the naked girl but no sex acts.
Ability to consent
Complicating the case is the fact that the girl, who will testify, was so drunk that she remembers nothing. Police had to piece together the events based on interviews and postings on websites and social media, in addition to the Nodianos YouTube video.
Although the defense has argued that the girl was awake throughout the evening, the key for the prosecution is to prove that she could not consent to sex acts.
"The state doesn't have to prove that she was flat-lined, but it's clear during both of these digital penetrations she was not in the state to consent," Ms. Hemmeter argued at the hearing. "Everybody agrees she's puking. She's puking on herself. People have to help her walk. She can't talk. She's stumbling. She's puked at every residence she's ever been at."
She said the boys took advantage of her condition.
"She was a toy to them that night," she said.
But Walter Madison, Malik's lawyer, argued she was alert enough at one point to give her cell phone password to several of the boys so they could snoop through her texts.
"If she chooses to have sex with more than one person, objectionable as the behavior may be, she may do that," he said. "That doesn't make it rape."
Attorney Adam Nemann, who represents Trent, said the evidence is not strong enough to support a rape charge.
"These were young boys that were stupid," he told the judge. "They got drunk together. There's probably a lot of indiscretion on her part as well. ... But what is consistent is that the evidence does not show that there was a sexual assault."
The trial is expected to last at least three days and could extend into the weekend.
First Published March 10, 2013 12:00 am