Defense battles social media blizzard in Ohio rape case

Defense battles social media blizzard in Ohio rape case

POSTED: Friday, January 4, 2013 - 1:30pm

UPDATED: Friday, January 4, 2013 - 1:34pm

Images and messages posted to social media that appear to depict the sexual abuse of a girl in this small town have been taken out of context, the attorney for one of the teenagers charged in the incident said Friday.

"One of the main concerns we have is that this matter has been, by special interest groups all over the world, tried in the court of public opinion," said Walter Madison, the attorney for defendant Ma'lik Richmond.

Richmond and another 16-year-old member of the town's highly regarded football team, Trent Mays, are charged with raping the girl at a series of back-to-school parties in August. Mays also is charged with "illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material."

Although the teenagers are juveniles, CNN is identifying them because they have been publicly named by a juvenile court judge, by defense attorneys and in media accounts. CNN is not identifying the girl, who also is a juvenile, in accordance with its policy not to release the names of alleged rape victims.

Special prosecutors from the state attorney general's office allege the teens repeatedly sexually assaulted the girl while she was unconscious during a series of parties that began the night of August 12 and went into the early morning of the next day.

The case gained national attention after The New York Times published a lengthy piece on it in December and an activist hacker group this week posted a previously unpublicized video of teenagers in the small Ohio River valley town cracking jokes about the case.

That group -- Anonymous -- and other critics have accused community leaders of trying to paper over rampant misconduct by team members, and have suggested that other students took part in the assaults or failed to do enough stop them. Authorities have declined to say if anyone else could be charged.

The controversy has shaken the city, with some residents accusing outsiders of trying to ruin the reputation of the town's high school football team, one of the few bright spots in the economically depressed community of 18,000.

"The buzz that keeps coming about is that Steubenville is a bad place, things are being covered up, more people should be arrested and I feel that's all unjustly so," said Jerry Barilla, a longtime store owner. "Because I think that to condemn an entire city for something that happened is not right. To condemn an entire school and all the kids that go there for something that took place among a few students is still not right."

Madison said that buzz has bled into the criminal justice system, making it difficult for his client to get a fair trial.

For instance, he said Friday on CNN's "Starting Point" that one widely circulated image showing two people, apparently teenagers, holding the girl by her arms and legs has been taken out of context. Madison said his client is one of the teenagers shown in the image.

"The photo is out of context," he said. "That young lady is not unconscious. That young lady was capable of walking, and her friends are individuals who indicated that information to the police. And they weren't selected (by prosecutors) for this hearing that we've had thus far because that didn't serve the purpose of the hearing."

Early hearings in criminal cases often hinge on the prosecution showing it has sufficient evidence for the case to go forward, not to prove a defendant's innocence.

Madison said more information will come out at trial, which is scheduled for February 13. Among the issues, he said, will be whether the girl had consented to any sexual conduct.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is investigating and prosecuting the case, declined Friday on "Starting Point" to say if anyone else could be charged in the case.

But, he said, investigators are continuing to follow leads.

On Thursday, the police chief who initially investigated the case, before the Jefferson County prosecutor asked state officials to step in, said he doesn't expect much additional evidence to surface in the case.

"You can come up with conspiracy theories and everything, but for prosecutors to take a case to trial, you have to have substantial evidence, you have to have evidence that can be presented. And in this case, I don't believe there is much more," Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty said.

He said he believes his town, and his force, have been portrayed unfairly.

"I think they have made our community look like something that its not. It's a very good community," he said. "Nobody condones rape, nobody condones lawlessness."

But McCafferty also said he's puzzled why no one intervened in the alleged assaults.

"Why didn't somebody stop it?" he said. "You simply don't do that. ... It's not done."

Authorities charged Richmond and Mays on August 27, the same day Jefferson County's prosecuting attorney asked DeWine's office to take over the case.

In addition to the rape and nude image charges, the teens also were originally charged with kidnapping. A juvenile court judge dismissed that charge in October, according to McCafferty and Adam Nemann, Mays' attorney.

"My client asserts his innocence, and he looks forward to his day in court," Nemann said.

Local authorities asked the state to take over to show that "everything that can be done in this case is being done," county prosecutor Jane Hanlin told CNN affiliate WTOV at the time.

"And if that means eliciting the help of these people from the attorney general's office, then that's what we want to do in this case," she said.

The case has been complicated by a lack of physical evidence -- the family did not report the alleged assaults until August 14. It also apparently hinges largely on witness statements, social media images and messages posted after the incident and possibly some information gleaned from cell phones seized by police. The family gathered many of the materials and delivered them to police on a portable computer drive, McCafferty told CNN.

Police have heard of a video showing the alleged attack, McCafferty said. But authorities don't have it or know whether it even exists, he said.

Police did seize several cell phones and iPads during the investigation, and "there was evidence on some of the phones," McCafferty said without elaborating.

The New York Times reported that a cell phone photo from that night shows the girl naked on a floor.

A special unit with the attorney general's office is examining the materials, McCafferty said. DeWine's office has declined to comment on evidence in the case.

Text messages posted to social networking sites that night, later retrieved and published by a crime blogger, seemed to brag about the incident, calling the girl "sloppy," making references to rape and suggesting that she had been urinated on, according to crime blogger Alexandria Goddard. CNN has not established whether that is true.

Goddard, a former Steubenville resident, discovered and preserved many of the messages, at least some of which are now in the hands of authorities. She first spotted the story in the small town's newspaper and started looking into the situation on a hunch that the highly regarded football team's members were getting special treatment at the expense of the victim.

"When I first came across the article, I just felt like -- because it was involving football players, and there is a culture there that football is very important -- that there was probably a little more to this story than what the local media was reporting," she told CNN on Thursday. "So I started doing my own research."

The case gained additional exposure this week when a group calling itself Knight Sec and saying it is part of Anonymous -- the loosely organized cooperative of activist hackers -- published a video purporting to show Steubenville students discussing the assault in joking tones.

In the video, a teenager makes joke after joke about the girl's condition, saying she must have died because she didn't move during one assault.

Anonymous and others in the video identified the teen by a name that doesn't match the two who were charged, but CNN cannot independently confirm his identity.

"Is it really rape because you don't know if she wanted to or not," the teenager says on the video. "She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish."

Other male voices can be heard off-camera, laughing and talking about the alleged assault. McCafferty said he cannot say who shot that video.

"The subject in that video was interviewed. He wasn't charged," the chief told CNN. "The attorney general's office has all this. It appears to me after I watched the video he was intoxicated."

Anonymous has taken up the case, hacking a site dedicated to high school sports in Steubenville and separately publishing on one of its websites a trove of images, texts and accusations involving students, coaches and boosters. Those individuals have not been named or charged by authorities with any crime.

Anonymous says it is collecting detailed information about the personal affairs of football boosters and others in Steubenville who the group claims may have helped cover up the alleged attack. It's also planning a protest "to help those who have been victimized by the football team or other regimes."

"The town of Steubenville has been good at keeping this quiet and their star football team protected," an Anonymous member wearing the group's trademark Guy Fawkes mask says in a video posted to the group's LocalLeaks website.

The organization, he says, will not allow "a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass because of athletic ability or small-town luck."

The attorney for the girl's family told CNN that the girl is in counseling and is "doing as well as one can expect."

"She's trying to go about her life right now, which is difficult because of all the media attention," family attorney Robert Fitzsimmons said. "It's as if she's just flown into this barnstorm. She'll make it through."

DeWine said he feels for the girl.

"My heart goes out to the victim," DeWine said. "The victim continues to be victimized every time something shows up on the Internet. There's nothing I can do about that, but it is very, very sad." 

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